Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Tale of Two Museums: It's Complicated

In our never-ending quest to expose Miguel to a variety of cultural experiences, we brought him to two, yes, two museums this week while he’s on winter break from middle school. Unconfirmed reports that our parenting behavior is being closely monitored by the International Red Cross and Amnesty International are false.

On Monday, we went to the De Young Museum in San Francisco and saw the King Tut exhibit with my brother-in-law and niece, Katy, who is not quite three months older than Miguel.

As we waited in line to enter, I puffed my chest out slightly and announced to my family and everyone else within earshot because of my booming voice that I was probably the only one there who’d actually been to King Tut’s tomb in Egypt.

“I could probably be the tour guide inside the exhibit,” I said.

Miguel probably rolled his eyes. As did Verna.

I visited Egypt in 1980 when I was a student in Israel for my junior year of college. My friend Dan and I hitchhiked in a taxi across the Sinai Desert with five other tourists and spent nine days in Egypt, just months after the border between Israel and Egypt had officially opened.

After exploring Cairo and Giza, site of the pyramids and the Sphinx, we boarded a 12-hour train ride to Luxor. I promptly got dysentery, derailing our plans to travel to King Tut’s tomb, about 8 miles outside the city on unpaved roads. Dan went by himself. The following day, no longer violently ill, I rented a moped and a driver of sorts and bumped and bounced my way to the tomb.

I don’t remember much about the tomb. I do know that when the original exhibit toured the United States in the late 70s, I was a college student in New York and tickets were the hottest item in town. It was rock concert crazy as long, long lines formed outside the museum as people waited to purchase entrance to the gold and glitter of the Boy Pharaoh.

None of this mattered much to Miguel even though I retold the story of my trip to Egypt to him while we stood in line.

In the end, he liked the exhibit. Verna had purchased the tickets at a discount from Costco, hoping to offset the traditional Christmas gifts with something of cultural substance, which included vouchers for an audio tour.

Miguel was pretty blown away with how the 3000-year old artifacts have held up so well over the centuries. He was grossed out by the Canopic jars, funerary containers that held the bodily organs of the Egyptian kings, queens, and other officials. But he liked King Tut’s gold dagger, the one that was buried with him when he died mysteriously at 19.

At one point, he and Katy asked if they could get something in the gift shop. I said, “Yes, but only if you can tell me three facts about the exhibit. And not that King Tut was the Pharaoh. Something more than that.”

They both said, “OK.”

A half a dozen facts later, Miguel and Katy were inside the gift shop, a kind of sickening homage to consumptive excess. OK, I know that the museum needs money, but King Tut shot glasses, magnets, pencils, and note pads?

The gift shop only increased the creeping unease I’d been feeling for most of the time we were there. The exhibit was fascinating and the artifacts very interesting, but I felt on some level that it was wrong for Howard Carter and his team to have unearthed the Tomb’s remains in 1922. We should let the dead remain in peace.

“How would you feel if someone went through your gravesite in 2000 years?” I posed to my brother-in-law, Marty.

“That’s fine with me,” he said. “Then they’ll see my Grateful Dead t-shirt, and they can do whatever they want.”

Miguel settled on a container in the shape of King Tut’s head. Not for use as a funerary depository, Miguel’s container will hold his puka shell necklace and other jewelry before basketball and baseball games.

We bought some King Tut-Egyptian stickers for Maya, who was across the street at the Steinhart Aquarium with her grandfather. I tried on a few Pharaoh headdresses and did my best imitation of Yul Brynner from The Ten Commandments:

“So it is written. So it shall be done.”

Yesterday we took everyone, including Maya, to the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, which is about 40 minutes north of where we live. Schulz, a simple and gentle man who earned at one point 30-40 million dollars a year, bequeathed the center, which housed his office, to the museum after his death.

The museum, with live size models of various Peanuts character dotting the grounds, also showcases a brief history of comics in America to the evolution of Peanuts from the Lil Folks cartoon strip in Minneapolis, MN, to a worldwide phenomenon.

Peanuts has always been one of my favorite comic strips, and I’ve read it daily for more than 40 years. I laughed out loud yesterday several times as I read the panels from the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and all the way up to Schulz’s last ones in 1999. He was funny, sweet-natured, and possessed a tremendous amount of empathy for young people. We even watched a fascinating 60 Minutes interview with Schulz, done a few months before he was diagnosed with colon cancer.

As I stared at one of the enlarged panels I whispered (if that is possible for me) to my brother-in-law, “I think I like this exhibit even better than King Tut.”

Later I asked Verna to compare them. “You can’t,” she said. “It’s apples and oranges.”

I guess for me there was guilt that the King Tut exhibit should never have seen the light of day, while the Schulz Museum was uncomplicated and carefree joy over a comic strip I have loved since I was a kid.

I am glad we went to both, though. I learned a lot at each one. And I know Miguel and the rest of the family did as well.

Being the happy consumer already at such a young age, Miguel picked out a Peanuts collection of all the strips from 1963, which he bought with his own holiday money. He read it last night and stopped at times to share particularly funny ones with Verna and me. I left for work this morning with Miguel deposited on the couch reading Peanuts comics from more than 40 years ago.

Who says exposing kids to ‘culture’ is a bad thing? Then again, isn’t everything culture?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Happiest Place in the World

I led a protest several years ago against Disney’s use of sweatshop labor in Latin American factories with a few of my middle school students and their parents. Flash forward to the present and the two days I just spent with family at Disneyland, relieving ourselves of a boatload of money at Mickey’s theme park.

Rosa Parks, Saul Alinsky, and other direct action freedom fighters are turning over in their graves.

With a creeping sense of guilt over abandoning my progressive values, I must admit, though, that the two days at Disneyland were magnificent and fun, fun, fun. Well worth it many times over for a variety of reasons.

The trip was probably hatched shortly after one of Verna’s oncologists said recently, “Make memories now.”

So Verna got her brother and his wife, who live halfway between here and Disneyland, on board and plans were underway in rapid fashion. We drove to their house last Friday night after work and left for Anaheim on Saturday afternoon.

Now it would be easy, very easy, for me to trash so much about Disneyland given my political predilections. But that would be hypocritical of me given that I unloaded my annual salary there in just two days. And enjoyed myself.

So I decided to share a travelogue of our experiences, highlighting a few of the negatives along with the many positives.

The Negatives:

1. The traffic. How does anyone in Southern California not keel over daily from high blood pressure, heart attacks, or strokes? We got into the LA area around 5:30 in the evening and it took us another hour to travel 15 miles. The highways are seemingly packed all day long.

2. Disney and sweatshops. I really can’t say much about this anymore because we bought so many Disney items for Miguel and Maya. But old habits and values die hard. While I still believe it is wrong for Disney to pay workers in its foreign factories less than livable wages, how can I utter even a feeble protest after I supported the machine with my hard earned dollars?

That’s about it for the negatives. I didn’t really mind the near gridlock crowds at the park on Monday. I like people. And even though I felt caught in a massive stream of humanity as we tried to reach Toontown, I enjoyed meeting strangers and hearing their stories and sharing some of ours.

The Positives:

1. Maya. Verna bought her a princess dress on Sunday and then treated her to the kids’ boutique on Monday, where Maya had a complete kiddie makeover—hair, hair extensions, make-up, finger- and toenail polish. Maya pranced around like the benevolent princess she was. She waved at all the characters, asked them how they were doing, and bade them goodbye by saying, “See you tomorrow.”

Maya was nervous at first around the Disney characters after Verna and I brought her to breakfast at the restaurant where you can meet them. There is a fixed price for the buffet and that doesn’t include the photo they take of you at the entrance. We paid $76 for the meal, but Maya got to either meet or wave at Minnie, Mickey, Pooh, Tigger, Dale (from Chip n’ Dale), Goofy, and Papa Gepetto. She hugged a few and beamed at all of them.

Verna and Maya were together the whole time. Verna’s doctor said she could only ride the same ones as Maya, which was fine with Verna. Who doesn’t love It’s A Small World and the Winnie the Pooh rides?

Verna would probably say the highlight for her was the Winnie the Pooh rollercoaster, which several of us rode together on Monday afternoon. After spending most of the morning and early afternoon in the California Adventure Park across the way, Miguel and I joined up with my brother-in-law, one of his daughters, and my father-in-law to track down Maya, Verna, and my sister-in-law so Grandpa Martin could ride the rollercoaster with his granddaughter. Maya sat next to Martin and squealed the whole time, her eyes ablaze with delight and silliness as the ride lurched forward.

The only bittersweet moment came on our walk to the rollercoaster. Verna shared with me that she went slightly overboard with Maya’s princess dress and make-over because “I probably won’t be around to help her pick out a wedding dress.”

I started crying.

2. Miguel. The look of unabashed joy on his face as we hurtled down the Tower of Terror and then popped back up as our stomachs did somersaults was well worth the 40-minute wait. He kept screaming, “This is awesome. This is awesome,” words he’d also offered several times when we’d careened through the dark on the rollercoaster at Space Mountain and on the herky-jerky Matterhorn.

It was a little sad that Miguel no longer appreciates certain rides as he did when he was five. It’s a Small World and Winnie the Pooh don’t hold any magic for him now, but he braved them because his parents wanted all of us to be together before the boys went off and Verna turned Maya into a Disneyland Princess.

3. The motel. We stayed at an Econo Lodge not even two miles from the entrance to the park. The rooms were $56/night, and you could see the nightly fireworks show bold and clear from the balcony. It was clean, inexpensive, and included a Continental breakfast that won over all the kids with donuts and juice. What more could they ask for than an early morning sugar rush?

4. My family. Besides being the memory-creating experience for Verna with her children, the jaunt to Orange County was also about spending time with Verna’s brother, sister-in-law, three of their kids, and my father-in-law. We also got to see my other nephew, his girlfriend, and their almost one-year-old daughter, Lola. I am lucky to have on my in-law side (as in my immediate family) a cast of extremely generous and interesting characters. My father-in-law stands out for his quiet and munificent manner.

5. The gift shops. You name it, we bought it. Christmas gifts for other cousins, our neighbors, friends, the kids. Miguel got a “I Survived the Tower of Terror” hoodie and zippered sweatshirt, a twisty straw cup, a goofy Grumpy winter cap topped with a faux Mohawk, tons of candy, and a Christmas ornament, while Maya scored the aforementioned Princess items, candy, an ornament, and a cup she hasn’t seen yet because Miguel picked it out as a Christmas present.

At one point, as I watched the overflow of people streaming in and out of the various gift shops, I said to Verna, “We should invest in Disney. This place is a goldmine. I am sure we could afford some shares in stock.”

“We could,” she said. “But do you really want to do that given your past protesting?”

OK, OK, I admitted, I was getting carried away by dreams of cashing in our Disney portfolio in several years and paying for Miguel and Maya’s college tuition.

6. Oregon Ducks Nation. Miguel became a Ducks football fan a few years ago when we visited Portland, and now I am one as well. We even flew to Eugene in 2008 to see the Ducks trounce Utah State. Well, the Ducks Nation, almost as ubiquitous as the Red Sox Nation, was seemingly everywhere in Disneyland. We passed and talked with at least a dozen Ducks fans sporting t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, all emblazoned in yellow and green and the familiar Big O. We even met someone all decked out in Oregon colors in a wheelchair. I guess the Ducks Nation is gearing up early for the Rosebowl on New Year's Day.

What else can I say? The two days were truly glorious and Disneyland is one of the world’s happiest places. We laughed, we cried, we joked, we laughed some more, we squealed, we shrieked, we ate, we drank (mostly water), we walked miles and miles, we laughed, and we embraced the blessings of family and holiday freedom (and a bit of conspicuous consumption where we did our part to fuel the American economy).

Can I get an Amen?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Holiday Letter 2009

Here is the holiday letter I sent out this season. I am still honing my skills as a holiday letter writer, but I see the missives as humorous responses to those who detail EVERYTHING about their families in wondrous tones:

Happy Holidays!

Life here is OK. Miguel is now in middle school and peppers many of his conversations with “I don’t know and “Not much.” He constantly reminds us that he is a preteen. We put him in an ultra advanced writing class and he is working on an underground blog created by a mystical band of children raising themselves.

He is still into sports. All the time. You name the sport, and Miguel will watch it or play it with gusto. We have entertained several offers from professional baseball, basketball, football, and curling teams for his services and are trying to decide which among them will be the best one. Skating across the ice with a broom appeals to me.

Maya started preschool in the fall, and we needn’t have been worried about her adjusting to the change. Her first words to Verna were, “Mommy, you can go now.” Maya is happy playing by herself or in groups. She smiles all the time, prances around the neighborhood as if she is the mayor, and is a total goofball. She loves books, especially when you read the same ones again and again, day in and day out.

We are in serious negotiations with CBS, Oprah, and the Cartoon Network for a syndicated TV series based on Maya’s life, a vast amount of experiences accumulated in less than four years on this planet. We’re talking millions!

I am no longer selling cars, drywall, and any other assorted useless or wasteful items that Corporate America continues to foist upon gullible consumers. I am a funeral director. Pause. Cue jokes and laugh track. Yes, things are dead here today. There, I said it. I am working for a non-profit Jewish funeral home, so I appreciate the opportunity to help people without worrying about commissions and selling.

In all seriousness, this year has turned out to be trying and difficult. As many of you know already, we found out on September 11 that Verna’s cancer had returned. But we feel extremely grateful to be surrounded by so many loving people, near and far, who have brought us meals, watched the kids, kept us in their prayers, and given us other temporal and material gifts.

May all of us be blessed with a healthy and happy 2010. All our love, Verna, Steve, Miguel, Maya, and Gigi

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Searching for God with a Three-Year-Old

I have an interesting relationship with God. I don’t really believe in any Deity.

For the first 19 years of my life (at least the ones in which I had a basic understanding of theology), I believed in God like just about everyone else. I imagined him to be a kindly but authoritative old white man, sort of a cross between the Wizard of Oz (the fiery image) and the heroic airline pilot, Sully Sullenberger.

Then I hit college, that godless and secular universe. I was in a Sociology of Deviance class when I was a sophomore at Columbia University and the professor was talking about moral relativity. That was the first time I began to seriously doubt God’s existence.

My mother freaked out and begged me to make an appointment with someone at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I was also an undergrad in the combined program between the two schools. I phoned the secretary of Neil Gillman, who would later win a Jewish Book Award and was a noted Jewish philosopher and scholar. He’d been my freshman Jewish philosophy professor and was the head of JTS’ rabbinical school.

He made me nervous. He was clearly very smart and had a finely honed arrogance to his classroom manner. I never really studied in his class and squeaked by with low Bs and Cs. I figured of all the students who’d sat in his classes over the years, he resented me most for wasting his time.

So I sat down in his office amid shelves and shelves of books, and he asked me, “What brings you here?”

I said, “I already explained it to your secretary.”

“I know,” he said. “But I want to hear it from you.”

“Well,” I stammered, “I don’t think I believe in God any more.”

He got up from his desk, walked over to me with an extended hand and said, “Welcome to the club.”

Professor Gillman, who also wrote The Death of Death, and I spent the next few weeks discussing God and theology. He gave me readings. One of Gillman’s points was that people move back and forth over their lives on a continuum of belief in God. Some times we are closer to the believing side and other times we move to the other end and become agnostic.

I haven’t really budged from the not-really-believing side since 1978. But now that I have kids, and don’t want to ram my views down their throats, I see my role as a father and transmitter of values and beliefs with greater urgency.

In addition, since Verna was first diagnosed with cancer and has now seen it metastasize, I am searching for some deeper meanings and connections with the spiritual side of the world.

When Verna was in the hospital in 2006 after she’d delivered Maya, six days after we found out she had Stage III breast cancer, we had a powerful moment with one of her night nurses whom we’d asked to pray for us. She said, “We could do it right now.”

So we held hands and she politely and slightly apologetically issued a prayer to Jesus (“He was Jewish, you know,” she said.) and the Divine sense of healing on our behalf.

Several weeks later, after Verna had just about wrapped up her chemo treatments, she and I had another powerful moment in front of my brother in church on Easter. Verna kneeled in prayer before a small altar at St. Raphael’s parish in our hometown and I did the same. It felt natural and supportive. I didn’t pray to Jesus, but I did want to be present for Verna.

Before any more of my Jewish family rises in indignation over the two examples I’ve cited, yes, I had powerful moments in a Jewish context as well. But I selected these two because I can’t write about everything.

I still don’t really believe in God, powerful moments notwithstanding, but (and this is really weird) I teach at a local synagogue and tutor bar and bat mitzvah kids and officiate at their ceremonies. I am Jewish guy.

While I am searching, I do feel drawn to the precepts of Reconstructionist Judaism. Reconstructionism, founded by Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan nearly 100 years ago, sees God as a human construction and posits that each of us possess a ‘spirit’ within us that calls us to act morally and ethically.

Spirituality and the Divine have been on mind lately not only because of Verna’s cancer, but also because I read The Bedtime Shema to Maya every night before bed. The book is a prayer of sorts and ode to the comforting words of the Shema, Judaism’s most important prayer, an affirmation of God’s Oneness, to let young people know they are not alone as the darkness envelops them before they drift off to sleep for the night.

“I rest myself in God’s hands. God is with me and I am not alone,” are the last two lines in the book, which Maya basically has memorized.

Listening to her sweet voice sing the first two lines of the Shema, an ancient prayer, is almost enough to make me believe in God. She is so genuine and filled with grace that her recitation of the book and prayer takes my breath away.

So I decided to ask Maya about God. I can’t remember how I phrased the question, but it was something like, “Maya, what do you think about God,” which is probably unfair to pose to someone who isn’t yet four.

She answered that God is in heaven with Grandma Chela. I probed some more but I could feel she was confused, so I dropped the subject. I didn’t want her screaming to Verna, “Mommy, why is Daddy making me talk about God? We just finger painted in school today and I am looking forward to the cookies you are making for the holiday party. All this theology is giving me a headache.”

I don’t have any answers or neatly packaged solutions. I am still searching, probing, trying to figure out the big and small questions and answers. I met with a Rabbi friend a few weeks ago and he said, “I don’t know if I believe either. But it is nice and comforting to feel that there is something greater than ourselves out there.”

He still prays and is a fairly observant Jew. He said he had recently spent 25 minutes during morning prayers just meditating one thought: God please help me get through this. I never asked the rabbi to elaborate, preferring not to intrude on his inner pain.

So I will see where my journey with God and the Divine Spark takes me as Maya gets older and Miguel lies on the cusp of being a teenager and seeing the world differently. They will need Verna and me to help guide them. Right now, I can only guarantee that I will be there as a moral force. The God stuff is still a work in progress.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Comeback Kids

I don’t know how much more excitement my healthy heart can take. Miguel’s CYO basketball team played a game last night that turned into a second half thriller of epic youth sports proportions.

I am the team’s assistant coach. I signed up in early September to help. They released player information and the practice schedule in October, which was when I found out that I was the sole coach.

I immediately emailed the league commissioner. I told him, given that Verna had just been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, I was unable to shoulder the burden of coaching by myself. He responded that I should ask other team parents for help. So I sent out a request, and one parent, Martin, said he’d be happy to assist. He also offered his older son, Connor, who plays high school varsity basketball, as our real head coach.

We started practicing two weeks ago. We have nine sixth graders, eight of whom go to the same school and are fun and energetic kids. Martin and I thank the hoop gods for Connor because Martin and I know very little about the intricacies of basketball. Yes, I follow the game. But I could never draw Xs and Os and diagram plays or run a practice with a series of drills.

Regular season games do not begin until January, but earlier this week all the teams in our league, St. Isabella’s, started competing in a pre-tournament qualifier. We lost our first game on Monday to the defending league champions, a team that has played together for three years. We led most of the game and only lost by four points. Given that we’d only practiced three times to that point and one of our starters had never played organized basketball before, we were very happy with how well the kids played.

All Miguel said after the game was, “Dad, I need new basketball shoes.” During the game he was slipping all over the court and even fell once while dribbling. I looked down at his soles and, sure enough, they were worn past the treads. If automobile tires looked that worn they’d be highly illegal and dangerous.

Whether it was a case of nerves or his faulty soles, Miguel missed all his shots and was tentative on offense. On defense, he is what we call a beast, a swarming, aggressive, hands-in-your-face kind of guy.

All I said to him after the game was, “Miguel, you guys almost beat the defending champs.” Then I paused. “Hey, don’t be afraid to attack the hole and take the ball to the basket. Play like you do at the park. I don’t want you to be like me.”

But we bought him some new shoes on Thursday. I definitely don’t want him following in my footsteps.

Miguel is familiar with my sports past, a history filled with mediocrity and fear and retreat. I was a good basketball player in my immediate neighborhood, given that I was taller than just about everyone else, but at school or in leagues I was a frightened kid who often passed the ball away as soon as it touched my hands.

Miguel knows all too well the stories of my Jekyll and Hyde basketball career. I am the guy who once played a pick-up game outside my cousin’s home in Massachusetts and the other team refused to play a second game with me because I racked up so many points. But I am also the guy who scored 10 points in four years of JCC ball and that includes scoring eight points in one game.

So I don’t want him to go through his athletic life playing like his formerly skittish father who does regret his past docility.

A biting chill hung in the air as we arrived at the gym last night. Verna was there for her first night out in a while as was Maya. The game started at seven.

I tutor one of the players from the opposing team along with Miguel on Wednesday evenings. He told us the other day, “You’ll beat us.” He and Miguel are on the same Little League team.

At half-time, though, we were down 19-7. We did not score a single point in the second quarter. Our normally composed kids were racing recklessly down the court, throwing up ill-advised shots and making passes that were either telegraphed to an opponent or missed their teammates completely.

They came off the court at the half looking very dejected. Connor moved over to huddle with them. I came over and said, OK, yelled because the acoustics inside the St. Vincent’s gym are horrible, “We can win this game! It’s not over yet. Just play your game. Take good shots, make better passes, and get those hands up on defense. We can chip away at their lead. We can win this game!”

Four minutes later, the second half began. By the end of the 3rd quarter (each quarter is eight minutes), we were down three. Everyone contributed to the second half effort. Our defense tightened up as I kept shouting, “Hands up, hands in their faces.” Kids were more aggressive driving to the basket. Our two big men, Jacob and Kendal, snared a slew of rebounds. Martin’s other son, Patrick, drained two shots from the top of the key. Miguel sank his first basket, added another one with less than two minutes to go, hauled in a key rebound, and also stole the ball.

With under two minutes to go, we tied the score at 23. Jacob was on the line shooting two free throws. He missed the first, but made the second. We were ahead by one. The four kids on the bench whooped and hollered. All we had to do was hold them. They took the ball out, but turned it over. We didn’t score either. With 20 seconds left, they had one last chance to overtake us. But we prevented them from taking any good shots. All they got off was an off-balance air ball with four ticks on the clock.

Game over. We’d won after erasing a twelve point half-time deficit. We earned tonight off, and play tomorrow morning against the team that nipped us on Monday. Miguel was totally stoked at how he and the team played. Must’ve been the shoes.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What Would You Do?

At the end of what is one of Maya’s favorite books, The Cat in the Hat, after the Cat and Thing One and Thing Two have cleaned up the house, the young boy narrator asks the reader if he and his sister Sally should tell their mother about the wild happenings that occurred while she left her two children home alone.

“What would you do?” he asks.

For some strange reason, I was thinking about the moral dilemma elucidated by Dr. Seuss as I watched a news report last night of the trial of suspected former Nazi guard and former US resident, John Demjanjuk, in Germany on charges that he helped kill nearly 28,000 Jews in a Nazi death camp more than 60 years ago.

Guards wheeled in Demjanjuk, seemingly a prisoner in his wheelchair, wrapped in a light blue medical blanket, an almost silent scream of pain pasted across his face. I have been aware of his case for many years, which emerged as Demjanjuk was living a relatively quiet life as a retired autoworker in Cleveland, OH, after eyewitnesses—Holocaust survivors—swore he was really Ivan the Terrible, a sadistic guard from the Treblinka death camp.

Demjanjuk is now 89 and may be in failing health. He may also be a war criminal. But as the TV report unfolded, I thought to myself, “What should we do?” Do we still punish Demjanjuk, who has already been deported from the US and could serve 15 years in prison if he is convicted?

I don’t know the answer. I certainly don’t want to trivialize or marginalize or dismiss the past, but I do wonder if Demjanjuk has already suffered enough? Of course, one could argue that there is never enough suffering for anyone so complicit in the Holocaust. And I agree.

But the man is almost 90, may be in deteriorating health, and probably only has a few years left to live. What do we accomplish by consigning him to prison at this point? On the other hand, there is the issue of justice for the dead and the survivors.

As the question what should we do reverberated through my mind, I thought about memory and remembrance and the past. The news report on Demjanjuk showed an elderly Holocaust survivor in court with his shirt sleeve rolled up and his clearly visible ID number tattooed onto his forearm. I wondered if he was excited about the prospect of Demjanjuk being convicted or did he feel a sense of weary calm as justice was meted out so many years later?

But I also thought how can any of us know, so many years later, if the alleged criminals are the right ones? Yes, someone has to pay, but was Demjanjuk a murderer or merely, as his lawyers unsurprisingly allege, a victim of circumstances and a former prisoner himself?

I thought of the movie The Music Box, which starred Jessica Lange, about an attorney who defends her kindly Eastern European father against charges that he was a horrific killer during WWII who participated in the mass murder of Jews along the riverbank.

During the trial of the Lange’s character’s father, the testimony of Holocaust survivors was challenged, and some of it was dismissed as failed memory. In the end, though, the father was guilty and Lange helped to denounce him the Justice Department.

The Demjanjuk case has not been resolved as neatly as a Hollywood-fabricated movie. It has been stewing for 30 years. I have no affection or allegiance or even understanding for Demjanjuk. And much of this blog is really an attempt to verbalize the internal roiling I am feeling about a particular moral dilemma.

Maybe the dead and the survivors, among whom I can count distant relatives I never knew, deserve the final nod. No matter what we think or anguish over, maybe our responsibility must be to those who seek justice and those who are no longer alive to pursue their killers.

According to the Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Services (1990), “Without confronting the fear and recapturing the fragments of memory, the survivor cannot make the necessary connections which allow reintegration of their whole life; neither can they obtain the peace of mind that comes with closure.”

Is Demjanjuk the monster of one savage death camp or the victim of mistaken identity? Is he the sacrificial lamb that will allow some to achieve a measure of closure and “reintegration of their whole life”, the person who may be quite culpable that pays for crimes against humanity?

What should we do? A zany cat may not always provide the necessary answers or resolution.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Gigi and the Dog Eat Dog World

I just started reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, in part because I am once again a human ping pong ball. First, I was a vegetarian for 30 years, then I stopped for three weeks because Verna was worried about my health, then I jumped back on the meatless bandwagon three weeks later, then this summer I started eating sustainable chicken and fish. But about a month ago, I realized (yet again) that I am a vegetarian and that is how I want to live in this world, so…

Reading Safran Foer’s book will probably confirm my choice. Next up The Vegetarian Myth, once it becomes available from the library. This book says the real culprit is industrial agriculture and not eating animal flesh may actually be detrimental to one’s body.

So who knows where’ll I’ll be eating-wise in a few weeks, chomping on slabs on beef, wolfing down rotisserie barbecued chicken? Doubtful. But I close the door on nothing.

I see the parallels between Safran Foer and myself. Neither of us liked animals all that much even though we either rarely ate them or abandoned our omnivorous ways altogether. But Safran Foer, like me, became a dog lover later in life and that surprised him.

And me as well.

We had a pet for five days when I was a kid. A puppy my father brought home that barked through the night and peed everywhere and drove my mother crazy. She made us get rid of it, and I cried at having to lose the little fellow who slept in my room.

A former girlfriend and I bought a puppy on a total whim at a Farmer’s Market outside Vermont more than 30 years ago. We soon realized neither of us, both college students at the time, was equipped to care for it, so we gave it away.

So I grew up with very little contact with animals in my own home outside of the occasional run in with spiders, crickets, and ants. Maybe once we had a goldfish. But there were no hamsters, bunnies, kitties, or anything else. And I didn’t particularly like animals all that much anyway.

Now my sentimental or sense of justice side came out from time to time. The political action group I worked for in Hartford, CT, in the early 1980s always hosted a holiday fundraiser that featured a plethora of items on which people could bid and buy. Someone put up a sheep for auction and the buzz around the room was that Nick Nyhart and a few friends were going to buy it for slaughter and consumption.

I quickly ran up to my friend and housemate Georgette. “We can’t let them kill the sheep,” I said.

“No, we can’t,” she said.

“What if we were to get a group of people together to buy the sheep and save its life?”

So Georgette and I scoured the room for partners as the bidding began. We rounded up three more people and raised $120, enough to outbid Nick and his gang. Georgette made arrangements with farmer-homeowners in Eastern Connecticut, where our sheep presumably lived out its days in relative peace and tranquility.

But the sheep episode was easy. I never met the sheep, didn’t have to interact with it, bath it, or clean it after it got sick or soiled itself. Nothing. The fact is I didn’t like caring for animals. Poopy diapers, hysterical children? Yes, as long as they’re my own. Animals? No thanks.

I worked on a kibbutz for three weeks when I lived in Israel during my junior year in college in 1979-80. One of my jobs was to collect the eggs in the henhouse. I got so upset at the little buggers pecking at my fingers and hands that I sometimes threw their eggs back at them. I was cruel.

My attitude towards animals and animal care changed a little over a year ago when we got Gigi, a miniature poodle. Verna fell in love with her immediately after she wandered into a pet store in Pismo Beach with our sister-in-law and then 18-year old niece. Verna called me on my cell phone, for I was at an Arroyo Grande Park at the time with Miguel, Maya, another niece and nephew, and my mother-in-law.

“I can’t believe you’re asking me to make such a decision on a cell phone while I'm at the park,” I nearly shouted to Verna. “We have to agree right?”

“Yes,” she said.

“OK, then I don’t want a dog. I don’t want any pets. Too much work.”

Verna came home with pictures of the poodle on her cell phone. I said she was cute, but I didn’t want a dog. Verna returned to the store and snapped more photos with her digital camera. Yes, I agreed, she is very cute, but I still don’t want her. We had dinner plans that night with the kids (two of ours, four of my brother-in-law and sister-in-law’s) and the adults in San Luis Obispo, where we were to meet my brother-in-law after work and his eldest, Erik, and Erik’s very pregnant girlfriend. Verna made us stop, hungry, at the pet store to meet the puppy. Yes, I agreed again, she was very cute, but I don’t want a dog.

Then I turned down the aisle and found Maya on the floor with the dog rolling in her lap. That’s when I realized it wasn’t about me. The kids will love her, I knew, so I relented but not before exacting a few concessions from the peanut gallery:

1. I will not have to scoop her poop
2. Miguel will never ask us for another gift for at least a year
3. My eldest niece would quit smoking
4. Miguel will be the primary caretaker for the dog he named Gigi

So we brought Gigi home a couple of days later and I spent nearly a week stewing about the dog. “Why did we have to get her?” “How much money is this going to cost?” “Why did I let you talk me into this?”

Gigi was relatively quiet and passive, but I wasn’t used to the small mounds of poop or the tiny streams of piss she left as presents in the kitchen and living room. And I was taking her out at night.

Well, eventually I calmed down and grew to love Gigi. She is sweet and makes almost no demands on us. Yes, she wants to be fed and use the neighboring park to pee and poop, but she is pretty low maintenance. She is happiest when someone gently strokes her belly.

And what happened to me, the guy who never really liked animals even though I wouldn't eat them? I am the alpha male. Gigi will abandon just about everyone and everything to come over to me. I am her go-to guy and that has helped bond us together. She is a member of our family and I like having her around.

I guess I could say on this day after Thanksgiving that I am grateful she is in our lives. As for the “promises” made to me once I caved in about Gigi, not one has held up. I scoop poop all the time; Miguel helps but is certainly not the sole caretaker, and he still asks for presents, gifts, and assorted stuff all the time (hey, he's a kid). And my niece, well, we’re sort of, kind of working on that.

But it truly doesn’t matter. I love Gigi, she loves me, and we’re a happy family. Corny and true.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Kids Wanna Rock...And Rap

Alice in Wonderland tumbling through the Looking Glass has nothing on me. Lately I’ve been riding the crest of a hip-hop wave thanks to our not-quite-twelve-year-old, Miguel, and I’m beginning to like the weird feelings I’m experiencing.

I am a rock and roll baby. I grew up listening to AOR, AM, FM, and everything in between. My mother brought me to a Dick Clark hosted rock and roll show at the Bushnell Memorial in Hartford, CT, when I was four. I’ve seen Chuck Berry in concert about seven times. I’ve see the Rolling Stones (twice), Springsteen (twice), Bryan Adams (twice), Simon and Garfunkel, Melissa Etheridge, the Talking Heads, Robert Palmer (four times), Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Journey (three times), Rick Derringer (twice), Peter Frampton (four times), and for this Sunday I snagged a six dollar ticket to see KISS for the first time.

So, yes, I love rock and roll. Yep, saw Joan Jett on a double bill with Cheap Trick at UCONN-Storrs in 1987.

Miguel likes rock and roll, too. He grooves to the Beatles and Chuck Berry and loves Green Day. But lately he has really been into hip-hop and rap, which coincides with his entrance to the larger social (and hormonal) milieu of middle school.

And now that Miguel has hijacked the radio whenever we are in the car together, as I did when I was his age, I’ve been ‘forced’ to listen to his music. At first, I rebelled. I’m earning the not-so-big bucks, so I’ll listen to whatever I want, you feisty whippersnapper.

I even flashed back in time to when I was traveling somewhere with my father. He always wanted to listen to WRCH, which featured elevator music and the soft sounds of Sinatra, Dean Martin, and the Big Band Era. Interestingly, I love that music now, but back then I thought it was awful. I am sure my father felt the same about rock and roll. I am also sure he detests rock and roll today. I wanted rock and roll on WDRC, WCCC, WHCN, and WAQY. So my father relented either out of a strong sense of paternal love or submission to his independent-minded teen.

Lately, though, I’ve actually been enjoying much of Miguel’s music. I even uploaded three songs to my iPod, and the other day I couldn’t stop singing Cascada’s Evacuate the Dance Floor.

My initial rejection of hip-hop and rap was that many of the lyrics denigrate women and use language that isn’t appropriate for Miguel. But as I listen to the songs, and hip-hop stations seem to play the same ones 2-3 times each day, I’ve learned they are no more or less harmful than any of the rock music that pours into my brain everyday on the radio and iPod. And I could use hip-hop as an opportunity to discuss values and other important issues with Miguel.

Take one of the songs Miguel really loves these days, Whatcha Say by Jason Derulo. It’s about how he got caught cheating on his girlfriend and is now begging for her forgiveness:

I was so wrong for so long. Only tryin' to please myself (myself). Girl, I was caught up in her lust. When I don't really want no one else. So, no I know I should of treated you better. But me and you were meant to last forever. So let me in (let me in) give me another chance (another chance). To really be your man. Cause when the roof cave in and the truth came out. I just didn't know what to do. But when I become a star we'll be living so large. I'll do anything for you. So tell me girl. Mmmm whatcha say, Mmm that you only meant well? Well of course you did. Mmmm whatcha say, (whatcha say). Mmmm that it's all for the best? Of course it is. Mmmm whatcha say, Mmm that you only meant well? Well of course you did. Mmmm whatcha say, (whatcha say). Wha- wha- wha- wha- what did she say?

I said to Miguel after we heard it for the third or fourth time that day, “Do you know what the song’s about?”

“He’s sorry about cheating on his girlfriend?”

“Yes,” I said. “But would he have been sorry if he hadn’t gotten caught?”

“Probably not,” he said.

I actually like the song a lot. The chorus is very sweet and I love to watch Miguel stick his hand out, close his eyes, and sing along. But I also want him to begin to understand a little bit about relationships and treating people right.

Another song he digs a lot is La, La, La by LMFAO:

I feel like I just seen the sun for the first time. You make my life bright cuz you shine. It's me and you baby, it's our time. I'm living my dream, girl cuz you mine. You got me skippin down the street. And singin love songs all out of key. I didn't smoke nothin but I feel so high. And I know why. It's a love thing, it's got to be. Your heart's all locked and I got the key. It feels like I just won the lottery. Cuz I got my girl and she got me. You my new obsession. All I want to do. You my new obsession, girl. I feel on top of the world wit you baby. I want to dance and party tonight. I feel on top of the world wit my lady. I'm gonna rock your body all night. She makes me wanna sing. La, la la la (8x)

I haven’t felt the need to talk about it, but the other day Miguel said, “Do you know what LMFAO stands for?”

“No,” I said. I still don’t know how to text from my cell phone.

“Laughing my effing ass off,” he said.


“Laughing my…”

“OK,” I interrupted, “I got it.”

Still, though, Miguel is impressed that I have been open to listening to hip-hop and, to a lesser degree, rap and that I am appreciating both genres.

“Aren’t you glad I got you into hip-hop music?” he asked me the other day.


Then he got wide-eyed when I told him I used to commandeer the radio from my father just as he’s done to me.

“Really?” he said. “Did Zadie (the Yiddish name for grandfather) get into your music?”

“No way.”

So it’s a generational thing. I know I am getting older when the rebellious and also corporate-driven rock and roll of my youth is no longer cool enough for my hip-hop adoring son, just as I once eschewed the un-cool sounds of Dinah Shore, Count Basie, and Mantovanni.

But I am big enough to admit that a lot of the music on Movin’ 99.7 and Wild 94.9 is exciting and great to listen to. So excuse me, please, but I’ve got to evacuate the dance floor:

Turn up the music. Let's get out on the floor. I'll like to move it. Come and give me some more. Watch me getting physical, out of control. There's people watching me. I never miss a beat. Steal the night. Kill the lights. Feel it under your skin. Time is right .Keep it tight. Cuz it's pulling you in. Wrap it up. Can't stop cuz it feels like a overdose. Oh, oh, evacuate the dancefloor. Oh, oh, I'm infected by the sound. Oh, oh, stop, this beat is killing me. Hey Mister DJ let the music take me underground. My body's aching. System overload. Temperature's rising. I'm about to explode. Watch me I'm intoxicated. Taking the show. It's got me hypnotized. Everybody step aside. Steal the night. Kill the lights. Feel it under your skin. Time is right. Keep it tight. Cuz it's pulling you in. Wrap it up. Can't stop cuz it feels like a overdose. Oh, oh, evacuate the dancefloor. Oh, oh, I'm infected by the sound. Oh, oh, stop, this beat is killing me. Hey Mister DJ let the music take me underground. Come on and evacuate. Feel the club is heating up. Move on and accelerate. Push it to the top. Come on and evacuate. Feel the club is heating up. Move on and accelerate. You don't have to be afraid. Now guess who's back with a brand new track. That got everybody in the club going mad. So everybody in the back get your back up on the wall. And just shake that thang. Go crazy, yo lady, yo baby. Let me see you work that thing. Now drop it down low, low. Let me see you take it to the dancefloor, yo (Everybody in the club!). Evacuate the dancefloor (Everybody in the club!). I'm infected by the sound (Everybody in the club!). Stop, this beat is killing me. Hey Mister DJ let the music take me underground.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Mothers Days

I was in the bathroom last week with Maya as she went potty. She looked up at me and smiled as if we were playing in the park.

“Daddy, I want a baby in my tummy.”

Um, what?!? But all I said was, “You have to wait until you are older and get married.”

“But I want a baby in my tummy now,” she said.

My next impulse was to call for Verna, who was on the couch and feeling ill from the effects of her radiation treatments. But Maya abandoned her insistence on having a baby right at the moment I needed her to pee, and we settled into a less troubling conversation.

“Verna, guess what Maya just said to me in the bathroom,” I said as we emerged. Verna managed a smile as I told her.

We probed Maya further and found out she plans to name her baby Tullen, which is the name our friends Kylie and Steve chose for their second child who was born about a year ago.

“I’m going to hold my Baby Tullen, daddy, but who’s going to help me?” she asked.

“I can hold Baby Tullen with you,” I responded.

“No, I can do it by myself,” she said.

Then she started asking me if she could still come home after she was a Mommy to Baby Tullen? Would she still be welcome? I told her that her home now would always be her home and she could come over anytime after she was married and a mother.

She smiled. I guess she needed some reassurance.

Maya has mentioned wanting a baby several times in the past week or two, so Miguel has heard her desires as well.

“Who do you want to be your husband, Maya?” he asked her the other day.

Maya has a stable of neighborhood boyfriends, so she usually just runs down the list or chooses one or two of them. On this day she answered simply, “Luca.” He lives down the block, is also three, and had played with her earlier that day. Other times, she says Ryder, oldest son of Kylie and Steve, who used to live next door, or AJ, who lives diagonal to us.

Verna and I were talking about Maya’s maternal wishes with a few friends over the weekend.

“One time,” Verna said, “Maya woke up from her nap with one of her baby dolls stuffed under her shirt.”

So the Mommy Instinct is also quite powerful in an almost four-year-old. We live literally right next to a city park, so Maya has seen her share of mothers and babies, and a few of our friends have had kids in the past year. Maya’s best friend, Jira, has a sister who is also almost one, Kaya. Maya regularly sees mothers breastfeeding and caring for their infants. Maya has changed a few of her dolls’ diapers with real ones.

Both Verna and I know Maya’s instincts to have a baby in her tummy are normal and sweet. All this practice and play and imagination will serve her well in the DISTANT future. But I draw the line if she asks soon how to get a baby into her tummy. For now and for a very long time, Maya is going to have to be content just to cram a doll under her shirt on her own.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Rhythm Is Gonna Get Ya

“Do you think we could use this on Miguel’s resume?”

“Uh, no,” Verna answered me.

“OK, maybe we can say he appeared with the Pete Escovedo Latin Jazz Orchestra.”

“I don’t think so,” she said.

In my never-ending quest to expand Miguel’s cultural horizons and expose him to music I enjoy, especially since he’s hijacked the radio and now plays rap or hip-hop every time we are in the car together, I took Miguel to a jazz show in San Francisco yesterday afternoon. Yoshi’s, a jazz club and Japanese restaurant, has a Sunday matinee where kids get in for only $5. When I saw that Pete Escovedo, well-known Latin percussionist, and his daughter, Sheila E, were playing with an orchestra that also features two of his sons, I bought two tickets for my saxophone-playing preteen and me.

“Do I have to go?” Miguel whined in typical preteen fashion a couple of weeks ago after I’d purchased the tickets. “I don’t want to see jazz.”

Even though I am not the adult in our household with the strongest sense of intuition, I knew if I could actually drag Miguel’s butt to the performance, he would enjoy himself.

And I was right. Very right. And all it took besides some scorching hot Latin jazz from a sizzling orchestra was a kid’s bento box with sushi and Japanese fried chicken and two fresh berry lemonades.

Once the music started and my feet were be-bopping under the table and the rest of my body was pulsating to the Latin rhythms, I looked over at Miguel.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“Pretty good,” he said, munching on the last of his chicken and motioning toward his empty juice glass. “Another one?”

Good thing he wasn’t driving home. I think the juice was carbonated.

After a few songs, one of Pete Escovedo’s sons, Peter Michael, invited any of the kids in the audience on stage to join the orchestra.

“Miguel, go on up,” I said in the dimly lit restaurant.


“C’mon, Miguel,” I said, but wanted to add: You’re in the school band, you read music, you’ll make me proud, so do it for me. Then I thought about bribing him again.

When we were in Portland as a family three years ago, we ate dinner one night at the Lucky Labrador, an excellent family-friendly brewpub we’d discovered on a trip there in 2002. Miguel was taking piano lessons at the time, so I said, “Miguel, I’ll give you $10 to play piano in front of the entire restaurant. Three songs.”

“No, not for ten bucks,” he said.

“OK, we’ll give you a $100,” said Verna, the usually more frugal one.

“Really?” he asked, wide-eyed.

“Yes,” she said.

“Really?” I asked.

Turns out Verna had promised Miguel that we would buy him a certain Star Wars Lego set that retailed for close to $100, so her incentive that night was really just a jump on a gift he’d nearly earned. He actually played four songs and inspired another kid to tap on the keys after him.

Back at Yoshi’s, Miguel wasn’t panicking about going on stage, but he wasn’t moving.

“I’ll walk you up there,” I said as several young people made their way to the front.

“No, I’ll go by myself,” he said as he jumped out of his seat.

And there he was, up onstage with Pete Escovedo, his three children, the rest of the orchestra, and about 25 other kids. Peter Michael stuck a microphone in each kid’s face and everyone introduced him or herself. Then the music began.

Miguel was in the back row, hidden behind the smaller kids, so I had to wait until he returned to our table to find out he played some kind of shaking instrument that may or may not have been in the tambourine family.

“How was that?”

“Okay,” he said in typical preteen fashion. But there seemed to be a gleam in his eye.

The Escovedo Family is from Oakland, and proudly called themselves ‘ghetto’, so they play a hip-hop tune that I hoped would compete with Miguel’s preteen fascination with LMFAO and Jason Derulo.

By the time the show was winding down, after more than 100 minutes of music, I looked over at Miguel again. He was pounding on his chair with his chopsticks as if he were the sixth percussionist in the orchestra. He was feeling the music. And he was on a mission.

“Dad, once the show ends can you buy me a pair of Sheila E’s drumsticks?”

“I guess so,” I said.

“They’re autographed,” he added. “And how about a drum head as well?”

It was also autographed by her.

How could I turn him down and splash cold water on his Latin jazz music-fueled enthusiasm?

So he brought home the drumsticks and the drum head for himself, and the chopsticks for Maya, and they banged and thumped before and after dinner. It was loud and it was entertaining and it was heavenly. Just as I knew it would be.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Best Offense is a Good Defense

Verna met with her oncologist yesterday. One of the things the doctor said was she hopes that Verna will be able to tolerate her chemotherapy, due to start in mid-November, for several years. The oral medication, Xeloda, is designed to keep the cancer from spreading out of Verna’s bones and into major organs.

I figured I should share some of what we learned at the oncologist’s with Miguel. He is 11 and knows that Verna’s breast cancer has metastasized to her bones. A few questions rumbled through my mind as I pondered how to broach the subject with Miguel: do I tell him before school and risk ruining his day? Before bed and cause him nightmares? During the later afternoon while we are tossing a baseball or football or playing Nerf basketball in his bedroom?

We’ve told him all along, “The doctors and nurses are going to do whatever they can to help Mommy get better. If that situation changes, we will let you know.” So I didn’t see anything wrong with sharing some of the information we got from Dr. Greyz yesterday morning in her office.

“Miguel, what does the offensive line in football do?” I asked him this morning as we drove to school. His carpool buddy was home sick, so it was just father and son at 7:45 on a chilly Wednesday morning.

“They block,” he said, somewhat confused by my question.

“Right. They’re supposed to stop the defensive linemen and other defenders from breaking through and getting to the quarterback,” I explained.

He was still confused.

I continued, “That’s how the doctors hope that Mommy’s chemo pills will work. The chemo will prevent her cancer from leaving her bones and going to other parts of her body.”

He was quiet for a moment. When he spoke he said, “Can I play football?”

I am reading Real Boys by William Pollack, a noted Harvard psychologist, who advises not to answer “We’ll see” or “Maybe” when a child requests something and you are unsure if you can deliver. Pollack favors total honesty with some good old fashioned explanations. So, if one of your children asks for something beyond the family’s current financial means, don’t just put them off by offering a “We’ll see” or a “Maybe later.” Be honest and say something like, “Maybe we will be able to afford that in 6 months, but right now…” Or, “What are some ways you could earn extra money to help pay for it?”

Pollack’s advice ran through my mind as I formed an answer to Miguel. I was also close to laughing because after I’d explained about Verna’s chemo, Miguel’s first response was about playing football.

“Mommy and I are not that happy about you playing football,” I said. Miguel knows we are worried about potentially serious injuries he could incur.

“But I am going to need the practice if I’m going to play for the Oregon Ducks,” he said. Miguel has been a devout Oregon Ducks fan ever since we spent time in Oregon in 2002, en route to Vancouver, and later for a week in 2006.

“What about playing baseball or basketball for the Ducks?” I responded.

“What’s wrong with football?” he said. “And I’m so good at it.”

The conversation kind of ended right there. Even though Miguel is a skinny, built for non-contact kind of guy, he wants to race down the football field and catch the winning TD. Verna and I, on the other hand, have visions of paralysis and severe head trauma.

But he does love playing football. I’ve been throwing deep bombs and short distance almost precision passes to him for several years. He dons a football helmet, mouth guard, and gloves and we practice on the field in our park or the street near behind our home. Lately, we’ve been doing punt returns, where I loft the ball high above him, which he retrieves and then tries to barrel past me for a ‘touchdown’.

Until Sunday. That is when he swept past me again with ease and I fell to the ground and nearly tore ligaments in my knee or severely bruised the bone.

So I told Verna about our conversation, and she said, “Are there still youth games going on? Maybe we could take him to one.”

Miguel has a friend who is smaller than he is and plays Pop Warner football, so our ‘you’re going to get your less than sturdy gridiron butt knocked around way too much’ argument doesn’t wash with Miguel because of his buddy.

I know that Verna is hoping Miguel will see a game up close and personal and immediately shun any present and future connection to organized football because of its real and inherent dangers. We also know that is highly unlikely given that he is a preteen and sees the game as a thrilling adventure.

So the next time he asks to play football we may have to bribe him out of it or resort to the time-tested response of “Maybe. We’ll see.”

Thursday, October 29, 2009


I just want to scream. I am trapped in a library every Wednesday afternoon. And if this keeps up, I’ll be broke before the New Year.

Unlike Haley Joel Osmont in The Sixth Sense, I see books, books, books everywhere and there are so many I want to read AND buy. But there are only so many hours in a day and so much my bank account can handle.

I tutor kids for their bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies part-time for a local synagogue, and our Wednesday sessions are held in the library of the local Jewish community center, JCC.

While my students chant, chant, chant their way toward Jewish ritual nirvana, I gaze out at the shelves lined with thousands of fiction and non-fiction books on assorted topics. A few caught my eye yesterday: first, When Children Ask About God by Rabbi Harold Kushner, who also wrote the bestseller When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Just because I am an avowed agnostic (yes, I know, kind of weird to be teaching Judaism when I doubt God) doesn’t mean I should refrain from exposing Miguel and Maya to God and other theologically appropriate issues.

Another book that piqued my interest was Business Mensch by Noah Alper, who developed Noah’s Bagels and the Bread and Circus health food stores, and then sold them for a very hefty profit. Alper believes one can be successful in business and life by employing Jewish ethical practices.

Yet another book was Hunting Eichmann by Neal Bascomb, about how a small cadre of Holocaust survivors and spies captured the notorious Nazi criminal. I’ve always been fascinated by the Holocaust and stories of ordinary people who did extraordinary things during that time or after.

For the past few weeks I keep perusing Thomas Keneally’s A Family Madness, a powerful novel that links together three narratives. Keneally is the author of Schindler’s List.

Then I was reacquainted with A Bintel Brief, a collection of actual Dear Abby-like advice letters published in The Forward, the leading Jewish newspaper in immigrant Jewish America. I own the book and used it extensively when I taught American Jewish history to fifth graders. Glancing at the book the other day made me realize I could recommend it for use in a high school English class where I speak about Judaism each year. The teacher uses some poorly written Jewish immigrant fiction that merely stereotypes the early Jewish experience. Bintel Brief, with its real world examples through compelling personal stories, would be an excellent alternative.

I did buy two books in the past few weeks that I first saw in the library. One was My Jesus Year by the son of an Orthodox Rabbi who is now married to a Christian woman. He spent a year traveling mostly through the Deep South, acquainting himself with Bible Belt Christianity and as a result rediscovering his passion for Judaism.

The other book was Becoming a Jewish Parent by Daniel Gordis, someone I studied with years ago at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Now that Miguel and I are preparing for his bar mitzvah ceremony in August 2011, I needed extra resources to help guide the Jewish side of our parenting.

As an aside, I noticed yesterday that the library contains eight books by Phillip Roth, a damn good writer, but not his literary spoof of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, The Breast, about a man who wakes up one day and is a six-foot mammary. I found the book in my high school library in the mid-70s and I literally devoured the book, from a scholarly interest, of course.

So my dilemma continues: too many books and too little time and money. I already have at least 20 books in my queue lined up on one bookshelf in the living room. I have two more waiting for me in the library. And then there are the ones Miguel’s recommending after I finished all the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books and The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Boy. Next up he wants me to read the latest installment of Hiccup the Viking-in-training. Miguel seems quite excited about having me read his personal suggestions.

And, as the library and a cornucopia of books beckons each week, I am poised to scream once more. Wait, I just ordered Keneally’s book on Amazon for a penny with $3.99 shipping. OK, there, I feel better. I just got my daily fix. But the madness continues. Will it ever end?

Let’s hope not. I am blessed to be drowning in a sea, OK, a stream of books.

Miguel the Magnificent

I bought a discarded picture book from the library a few years ago entitled My Dad the Magnificent, which is about a boy discovering that his ordinary father is truly magnificent. Miguel and I haven’t read it yet, and he may be too old now, but I think about it from time to time.

I am not magnificent at all, but children, certainly until they become adolescents, often see their parents as heroic or close to perfect. One time I made some typically self-deprecating comments but Miguel quickly interjected something about how I was really, really good at whatever I was bashing myself over.

On Tuesday, at his teacher conferences, we were talking with the art teacher and I said, “Miguel does come from an art-challenged household.” Miguel looked at the teacher and then at me and said, “But you’re a very good artist.”

I had to stifle a laugh. I’ve progressed beyond stick figures and I can draw better than Verna, but, trust me, I couldn’t even win a drawing contest on the back of a matchbook. But Miguel doesn’t see me that way. He thinks I have talent, in several areas. He still brags how I tossed a football to him 30 yards after an Oregon football game in Eugene last year.

The danger with being self-deprecating in front of our children is that we prematurely burst the bubble of our self-image in front of them. And since this happens before they come to the realization of our ultimate imperfection on their own, it is often confusing and scary. Children need their parents to be role models for as long as possible.

I have realized over the past few days that even though Miguel may not be magnificent, he is pretty darn close to being wonderful.

The first thing his core (or homeroom) teacher said to me at the beginning of the conferences was, “I adore Miguel. He’s amazing. Is he in the GATE (for gifted students) program?”

“No, should he be?” I asked.

Ms. Rogers said, “No. I’m not sure there are any advantages to being in the GATE program.”

Later Miguel told Verna and me that he thought Ms. Rogers had asked if he was in the gay program. “I thought,” he said, “what’s a gay program?”

I am not writing about Miguel being superb or extraordinarily talented. I don’t want to put that pressure on him. He’s a normal 11-year-old kid who is very good in school and loves sports. But as he edges towards being a teenager, I am more and more impressed with how he handles himself in life.

Last night he and I watched the World Series, the only time we allow him to watch TV with Maya around. Verna and I even let Miguel sit on the couch with his plate of pasta during the game. Maya, Verna, and I sat at the kitchen table. But, even as his beloved Yankees were losing, he couldn’t stop talking about the amazing play by Phillies pitcher Cliff Lee, a backhanded grab of a sharp hit ball that he deftly tossed to first base for an out.

“You’ve got to watch the replay. I hope they show it again. He caught it behind his back,” Miguel said.

Miguel’s team was losing and headed toward defeat, but he was still excited about a great moment from an opposing player. Miguel didn’t mope or appear upset that the Yankees lost. By the end of the 8th inning, Miguel had grabbed a football and was running from the kitchen into the living room, diving without using his hands onto the couch. He wasn’t distracted by the Yankees loss or giving up as a fan, but he seemed to need to expend some energy. And he kept saying, “Dad, are you watching?”

Miguel was more impressed with his ability to hurtle over the end of the couch or straddle it as if he were running the hurdles. And why not? It was just a game, which is easy for me to say since I am a life-long Red Sox fan giddy beyond belief when the Yankees fail mightily on the grandest of baseball stages.

But it was Miguel’s attitude that caught my attention. Because Verna is feeling drained by her radiation treatments and I sometimes don’t get home until 5:30, Miguel takes Maya to the park before dinner. This morning he said to Verna and me at the breakfast table, “Maya and I played hide and seek at the park yesterday.”

“Just the two of you?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“Did she understand the game?” Verna asked.

“Yes,” Miguel replied.

Maya adores Miguel, too. She wears a pink Yankees hat an always wants to follow him to the park or the basketball court. I walked into the living room last night and the three of them were watching the game. I asked Verna who she was rooting for. “The Yankees,” she said as Miguel smiled. Maya walked right up to me and said, “I’m rooting for the Yankees, too.”

Yes, she wants to be just like her big brother. In fact, if we asked her she’d probably say he was magnificent. And she’d probably be right.

Monday, October 19, 2009

My Youthful Heart

My mother told me she saw Mr. Yazmer over the weekend at a senior event at the Jewish Community Center. She recognized him and went over to say hello. He’s 87 now and didn’t remember her name, but certainly remembered her and our family.

The conversation with my mother brought back a flood of memories from my youth. The Yazmers were our neighbors in Bloomfield, CT, and the backyard of their white house was diagonal to ours. The Yazmers were there for my first 18 years, sixteen of which I spent on King’s Highway, a four-house dead-end street that bordered the woods. Mr. Yazmer bowled every Wednesday night with my father in the Hartford Mutual Society League. Their daughter Rochelle, who is now about 55 or 56, was one of my all-time favorite babysitters and someone I had a major crush on for many years.

Mr. and Mrs. Yazmer had two other children, Donny and Ronny, both also older than my brother and I. Mrs. Yazmer rarely went outside because, we were told, she was “not well”, but on the few occasions I was at their home she was always very friendly and quiet, offering us cookies or juice.

One time, Ronny, the middle child, who is at least eight years older than I am, told me that I could fly just like Superman if I circled his house three times and then jumped off the back step. I didn’t actually believe him, but at age six or seven and very enamored of the Superman TV show, I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to “leap tall buildings in a single bound” or at least get some air.

So I ran around the Yazmer home and then dutifully bounded up their back step, which was only a couple of feet off the ground. I leapt and landed on the grass. I wasn’t hurt, though my pride was wounded and I was somewhat disappointed. Ronny probably went inside and laughed at the prank he’d pulled on his young neighbor. There were other times, though, he played catch with me or talked to me in the backyard, so I wasn’t total fodder for his neighborhood silliness.

But the Yazmer who occupied the bulk of my waking thoughts and the occasional dream was Rochelle, with her shapely figure and long brown hair. She and Barbara Brown, who lived down the street, remain the two babysitters I will never forget until I start drooling into dementia. I was prepared to marry them before I turned 10. My love for each of them was deep and unconditional. I think Rochelle was the more potent object of my affections because she lived so close to us.

Once, when I was six or seven and in the first grade, she (a sixth or seventh grader at that point) and I were playing on the slide in my backyard. My mother called me into dinner, but Rochelle promised we could continue after I finished eating. I floated into the house eager to resume my play-DATE with Rochelle.

My mother noticed some red splotches on my face and feared the worst. “You have the measles,” she said, and then firmly announced that I was going to be homebound for the next few days. I cried in agony. Not because of my illness and certainly not because I was going to miss school. I was shaken up because I wouldn’t be unable to return to Rochelle’s arms at our backyard play structure. To my quite young self, it was as if I had been consigned to the hellish prison of the Count of Monte Cristo.

A few of the neighborhood guys and I spent our preteen and early teen years following Rochelle and her high school boyfriends. We used to hide in the bushes near the Yazmer home and spy on her and her suitors. One of them, whom we dubbed “Muscles” because he wore tank tops and had powerful looking arms, used to arrive in his souped-up Camaro and was quite friendly to the annoying acne-faced adolescents who mysteriously shouted behind a cluster of shrubs on Joyce Street.

Because my father socialized with Mr. Yazmer and I was the oldest of my immediate circle of friends, Rochelle treated me with more respect and courtesy than I deserved. I imagined she secretly longed for me, even though I was either 12 or 13 when she graduated from high school.

But for me, I will never forget her movie star smile and looks and how we panted whenever she sunbathed in her backyard. It was as if a bikini-clad Goddess from Mt. Olympus via Cosmopolitan or Playboy had descended into our midst.

Mrs. Yazmer died about 15 years ago, maybe longer. I wasn’t surprised because she never seemed healthy when I was a kid. Mr. Yazmer spends at least part of the year in Florida, because my father said that he and my stepmother have seen him once or twice.

When my mother said she had news about all the Yazmer kids, I partly hoped she was going to say that Rochelle was divorced. For some reason, Verna wasn’t amused when I got to that part in the story. Yes, I should’ve just shut up about lusting after Rochelle.

But my mother said, “Rochelle and her husband just celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary in New York City with both their children, who are living there now.”

And I was happy for her because marital bliss is a blessing and an accomplishment. I haven’t seen her in at least 30 years, which means I’ve missed her entire marriage. Thirty years. Verna and I are not quite a year-and-a-half away from 20. Given the metastatic cancer Verna is now dealing with, thirty would be great. Do I hear 40, 50…?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Return of the Undergraduate History Club

Hey, at least I haven’t made Miguel memorize the encyclopedia or translate the dictionary. I’ve just resurrected a tiny history club. Someday he’ll thank me for harassing, er, encouraging him to learn more.

I hope.

When Miguel and I received some stamps of civil rights pioneers I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if Miguel, Verna, and I each researched one pioneer and reported back during dinner?”

Miguel rolled his eyes when I suggested it. Verna did the same. I pulled her aside and asked her to support me. OK, she’s got a lot on her plate these days, but she somehow saw a sliver of wisdom in my attempts to expand the family knowledge base.

Miguel eventually chose Medgar Evers; Verna picked Fannie Lou Hamer; and I settled on someone I’d never heard of, J.R. Clifford. The rules were simple: research your person and present information about him or her in your own words.

I took the idea for the Wefald-Friedman History Club from my undergraduate days at Columbia University in NYC. One time I was sitting in the quad with a group of friends, gazing out at the massive library and pondering ways to get laid without paying for it, when we decided to form the Undergraduate History Club in order to satisfy our thirst for knowledge and take our minds off our unsuccessful attempts to nail co-eds. The other three guys were members of the Columbia rowing team and I was a reporter for the school newspaper, the Columbia Daily Spectator.

Each week we submitted questions to another group member and then shared our findings over snacks and beers. I only remember one question anyone ever posed: what is the significance of Kashmir in the song of the same name by Led Zeppelin?

Probably the biggest accomplishment of the Undergraduate History Club, beyond minor edification, was when Rolling Stones tickets went on sale at the Brendan Byrne Arena in 1982. The four of us—Dave, Noah, Allen, and I—decided to send in 100 self-addressed stamped envelopes in order to score a pair of seats through the lottery.

On the day of the envelope addressing and licking party, only two of us—Dave and Allen—were available, so they worked in proxy for the whole group. I can’t vouch 27 years later for Noah’s whereabouts back then, but I am pretty sure I had a late afternoon history class.

Anyway, a few weeks later Dave got a voucher in the mail good for two tickets to the show. The club reconvened to decide which one of the remaining three would accompany him. Allen, a pre-med student with an inflated ego to match his bulging rower’s pectorals, said he deserved the other ticket because he and Dave had done all the work to mail off the envelopes.

Noah and I countered that that wasn’t the original agreement, invoking the spirit of the club, which was pretty close to the Three Musketeers’ credo of ‘All for One and One for All’. Allen was forced to back down. Plus he already had tickets to see the Stones in Philadelphia.

Dave put three strips of white paper behind his back, one colored with red marker. Allen, Noah, and I each pulled a strip and I was the lucky recipient of the red one and the right to be Dave’s date to the concert.

Allen skulked around for a bit more, but we ignored him as I bubbled with excitement about attending a major rock show—The Rolling Stones with Tina Turner as the opening act.

So why not resurrect the history club in my own household? Outside of our libidinal pursuits and a minor clash over the Rolling Stones, we’d had fun and learned a bit.

Neither Miguel nor Verna had completed their assignments on time, so the Wefald-Friedman History Club had to postpone its inaugural meeting to Sunday night, October 12. On that evening, Miguel shared some facts about Medgar Evers, which was topically relevant because there’d been a news item earlier that the Navy had named a ship for the slain civil rights leader. And Verna talked about Fannie Lou Hamer, who, like Verna, had an early October birthday.

I learned that J.R. Clifford was the first African-American attorney in West Virginia and a Civil War veteran, and helped to form a group that became the predecessor to the NAACP.

Then we wrote out questions for this week and gave them to each other. Miguel asked Verna to answer three ways in which energy can be transferred. I asked him to share three important things about Dr. Spock. And Verna asked me how her high school—Presentation—got its name and the religious significance of the order.

Miguel started his assignment last night, a day early, and shared with us that Dr. Spock wrote a best-selling baby book and introduced psychoanalysis into his treatment of children and families.

“Miguel, what’s psychoanalysis?” I asked. One rule of our club is you have to be able to define the information you uncover.

He looked at me. “I don’t know. It’s got something to do with treating psychos.”

“No, that’s not it,” I said. “Go find out,” which he did, though I am not sure he understands the finer points of Freud and therapy. Then, again, he is only 11. But look at the jump on knowledge he’ll have when he gets to college should he decide to form his own history club. Something tells me he’ll also be a lot more successful with females as well. But until then, he’s going to have to settle for the comfort of the encyclopedia and the dictionary.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Not Exactly the Hatfields and the McCoys

I love my son and I hate the Yankees. Those two seemingly incongruous statements are actually related because Miguel loves the Yankees. What’s a 3rd generation Red Sox fanatic father to do?

Ah, I remember the good old days when Miguel and I rooted for the Bosox in 2003. We were on a family vacation in New York during Boston’s ill-fated American League Championship series collapse in game seven. He and I watched the game together until he went to bed around 11 pm. A little more than an hour later, Aaron (freakin’) Boone launched a homerun into the Bronx night off Tim Wakefield. The crowd in the bar below our hotel near Central Park erupted. Verna woke from her slumber and said, “What happened? Did the Red Sox lose?”

I just sat in bed, numb, staring at the TV screen. I mumbled, “Please hold me,” and fought back the tears of another baseball heartbreak.

A year later all was well in the baseball universe as far as I was concerned when the Red Sox initiated the greatest postseason comeback in baseball history and erased a 3-0 ALCS deficit to beat the Yankees en route to their first World Series title in 86 years. But I couldn’t completely share it with my son.

Somehow over the ensuing year, he’d abandoned the Bosox and started pulling for their archrivals, the Yankees. Verna, Miguel, and I are not sure exactly how the change transpired, but informal lore points to the hat our neighbor Jodi, a die-hard Yankees fan, bought him in early 2004.

Whatever the reason, he abruptly stopped cheering on the Red Sox and switched allegiances to the enemy. Maybe it was his first stab at honing an identity separate from his parents. Maybe it was a pre-pre-teen gesture designed to merely annoy his father. Maybe he was already tired, in his then short life of six years, of the Curse that had followed the Red Sox for more than four score years. Maybe he wanted to attach himself to a team he deemed more successful at winning.

Either way, it dented my baseball loving heart. My grandparents were Red Sox fans; my father has loved them for all of his 78 years; and I was excited about having Miguel pick up the mantle I so proudly bear as part of family legacy. But, alas, it was not to be.

Baseball is more than a game for me. My father was my pre-Little League coach, and I learned important values from him as a person and a man. He was patient with all his players, especially his extremely mediocre son. He never got angry with umpires. He saw the game for it was: an opportunity to have fun, build skills, develop camaraderie, and instill character.

The only time I ever saw my father upset was with a parent from our team. The man had been yelling at the umpire all game long, and finally my father uncharacteristically told him to sit down and shut up. My father approached the man in the stands, and for a moment I thought they were going to fight. But that scene has stayed with me for nearly forty years because my father stood up for something that was right.

I volunteered during Miguel’s first year in Little League, which was coach pitched, and was an assistant coach the next year. I have helped out the past two years while he’s played in the majors. He and I attend 12-15 professional games a year. We play catch several times a week during the spring and summer. For Miguel and me, baseball means long summer nights on the grass; watching grown men perfect or fail at what is essentially a child’s game; seeing him dive for a high fly I’ve thrown his way; and hearing the thwack of the bat on the ball.

And that will not change no matter who he or I root for. But I was a little disappointed when the Red Sox were no longer his favorite team and he began actively opposing them.

Then came 2007 and the Red Sox’s second appearance in the World Series in four years. Through the grace of a former student of mine, I was able to purchase two tickets to the second game of the World Series in Boston. Miguel was excited about going, but said he would quietly root for the Rockies.

Then we entered the Yawkey Way Store, a souvenir heaven and haven just outside Fenway, a huge emporium filled with Red Sox clothing and hats for men, women, children, babies, toddlers, bumper stickers, lanyards, baseball cards, pins, patches, World Series programs, stuffed animals, bracelets, pens, pencils, photographs, baseballs, blankets, license plates, dishes, silverware, towels, posters—everything celebrating the Boston Red Sox. It was overwhelming and beautiful.

“Dad, I’m going to root for the Red Sox,” Miguel announced. “When they play the Yankees or the Giants, I won’t, but against everyone else I will.”

I was stunned. Shocked. Elated. Shocked. I was afraid to ask why for fear of disturbing whatever spell (or curse) he was under. I know I asked something but it was a half-hearted effort to understand the motives of a nine-year old.

“You know,” he continued, “The Yankees aren’t a bad team. Why don’t you root for them?”

Again, I don’t know what I answered, and I’m not usually tongue-tied, but I said very little. Root for the Yankees? Was he completely whacked?

He picked out a bright green St. Patrick’s Day-like Nike sweatshirt with Red Sox in red letters and a red four-leaf clover underneath. I was so moved that I bought him the traditional blue Red Sox cap with a red ‘B’ in front, and a World Series logo patch on its side.

We entered Fenway two hours before game time and deposited our backpacks and bags of souvenirs on our seats in the second row of the centerfield bleachers right next to the FOX TV cameras and the Green Monster. The Rockies were taking batting practice.

Balls flew in our direction, a few players tossed them into the crowd, but nothing actually came to us. At one point, one of the Rockies lobbed a ball to a guy right near us. He walked down the aisle and said, “Is there a kid who hasn’t gotten a ball yet?”

I pointed at Miguel and said, “How about him?” And this guy promptly handed Miguel a World Series batting practice ball.

When we sat finally down in our seats for good, about an hour before game time, one of the FOX camera guys handed Miguel another batting practice ball. Because we’d been unable to find a strictly Rockies souvenir hat for the school bus driver, Milton, Miguel said the second one was for him.

How can I adequately describe the surreal and profound joy and feelings I experienced being at a Boston Red Sox World Series game with Miguel? Roaring with the crowd every time a Red Sox batter stepped up to the plate or Curt Schilling got two strikes on a Rockies batter; watching fans banging furiously against the wall on the field near home plate; hearing and seeing the Red Sox bullpen, which had transformed itself into a folk band, as the pitchers thumped water bottles and other homemade instruments against the roof and seats in the pen; high-fiving complete strangers but most importantly my son after a great play or pitch by a Red Sox player.

I can’t emphasize enough how cool and gratifying it was to root for the same team as Miguel, especially the Red Sox. We do cheer on the Giants together, and that’s a great thing, but I never imagined we’d be screaming for the Red Sox in the same way.

Miguel only faltered a little in the 8th inning, with the Red Sox holding onto a 2-1 lead. “I’m tired. Could we go now?”

“Miguel, we can’t leave now. The Red Sox are only winning by a run and it’s the 8th inning.”

He then asked about leaving in the 9th. I said no again and he was fine after that. We stayed until Jonathan Papelbon recorded his fourth out of the game, and the Red Sox closed the evening up two games to none.

The day after the game, while I was running around a lake in Newton , MA , I started thinking about Miguel’s gesture and how he was now an ardent Red Sox fan. Even though I’d wished we could’ve shared the World Series experience in 2004, I never wanted him to root for them for me. Baseball is still just a game and he should be able to choose his own allegiances.

But I was touched that we were able to share in the joy and passion of the Red Sox Nation at the World Series. So when I got home I said to him, “Miguel, I am going to root for the Yankees with you.”

“Really?” he asked.

“Why not?” I said. “I won’t when they play the Red Sox or Giants, but I will against other teams. I’ll even wear one of your Yankees hats.”

He smiled.

But rooting for the Red Sox and hating the Yankees is practically coded into my DNA. I did wear a Yankees hat, but that is because Miguel plays for the Little League Yankees. I have not been able, though, to root for the New York Yankees, which brings us to this year.

The Red Sox’s season is over, but the Yankees begin their march to the World Series in two days when the take on the Angels in the ALCS. Miguel has mentioned that I should cheer for the Bronx Bombers. And so I thought again about his gesture from 2007.

Since then, the pendulum has swung back to the Yankees. They are Miguel’s number one team followed by the SF Giants and maybe the Red Sox. I have done my part to influence him, adorning his room with Red Sox pennants, a 2007 World Series poster, even a ball signed by Jonathan Papelbon, which my former student sent to us. But he is firmly a Yankees fan. He even patted my back last weekend in mock concern after the Angles bounced the Red Sox from the playoffs. The smile curled on his lips let me know he was taunting me.

However, I have spent a lot of time lately thinking about the rivalry and what it is all about. Rivalries are part of sports and help fuel the passion and intensity of our fan experiences. On the other hand, can’t we just root for excellence whenever and wherever we see it? Certainly the Yankees, with 26 world championships, are unrivaled as the kings of baseball. And they have many current players whom I would gladly take on my team, Jeter, Rivera, Texiera, Sabathia, to name four.

When we were at a game in Fenway in 2005, we witnessed a drunken Red Sox fan mercilessly pelt Mariano Rivera with an inexcusable verbal barrage. I am sure Red Sox fans and players fare no better in Yankee Stadium.

Opening things up into the larger cultural sphere, rivalries in politics can be deadly and dangerous. We attack those with whom we disagree with a vengeance that often borders on the pathological. I’m not arguing that we should all just get along, but why do we so easily dismiss our commonalities and exacerbate our differences to the point of open hostilities?

I can’t honestly say who I will be rooting for this Friday night when the Yankees-Angel series begins. Part of me just wants to toss nearly 50 years of personal baseball history aside and join with Miguel. Another part of me wonders if I can get past my decades long aversion to anything Yankees.

When we visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, in 2005, a father I met in the gift shop was shocked I was buying Miguel some Yankees gear. “I’d never allow a son of mine to wear Yankees stuff in my house,” said the loyal Red Sox fan.

“But he’s my son,” I simply responded.

And that is the bottom line. I love Miguel and I have hated the Yankees for a very long time. I will always love my son, but my baseball allegiances could shift this weekend for the remainder of the 2009 playoffs.

Parts of this blog entry were taken from the journal I wrote in October 2007 after Miguel and I returned from the World Series.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Holiday, It Could Be So Nice

The Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah may be perfect for kids (and adults). Unlike its more popular sibling, Hanukkah, which prances around with a puffed up chest, where we gorge ourselves on latkes (fried potato pancakes), jelly doughnuts, and chocolate, and lavish gifts on our children for eight crazy nights, Simchat Torah takes place largely in the synagogue. It doesn’t on the surface excite the young with the prospect of toys and an extended sugar high.

In fact, when I told Miguel last Saturday afternoon that we were going to the Simchat Torah celebration that evening, he grumbled in preteen fashion, “Do I have to go? I don’t want to.”

Selling Simchat Torah to Maya was much easier. All I said was, “Maya, we’re going to a party tonight at the synagogue.”

“Will there be cake?” she asked, because party equals cake in her preschool mind.

“There might be cake,” I said. “But if not, there will be treats.”

That was all it took. For the rest of the day she kept asking, “When are we going to the party at the synagogue? I want to go to the party at the synagogue.”

Simchat Torah, which comes at the end of Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles, celebrating when the Israelites wandered in the desert after Egypt and lived in prefabricated huts or Sukkot), commemorates the conclusion of the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, which are read weekly in synagogues across the globe, and starting all over again. It is festive and joyous.

Children usually march throughout the synagogue with paper flags, and they get to eat candy and drink juice. The point is to honor and celebrate the Torah, which is the 3000-year-old sacred history of the Jewish people.

We used to go to synagogue in Bloomfield, CT, and party in a modified pre-Halloween ritual with Jewish religious overtones. While the adults prayed and chanted from the Torah, the kids waited patiently to parade around the synagogue with our flags, and then eat whatever delectable treats we were offered.

In high school or early college, I joined my friend Jed Brody and his more Orthodox family acquaintances, the Mandels, for a Simchat Torah celebration at Young Israel in West Hartford. Young Israel elevated Simchat Torah beyond mere joyous revelry. All males over the age of 13 were encouraged to receive a blessing at the Torah and then consume varying quantities of hard liquor, mainly whiskey in the form of shots.

That night, Jed, Kenny, and I sang and danced and basked in the wisdom glow of the Torah and got drunk. Very drunk. I remember allowing my inner rebel to shine and dominate as we took male pride in pissing in the bushes along Farmington Avenue. I don’t know if the rabbis intended public urination to be part of Simchat Torah.

The celebration last Saturday evening was quite tamer and no one peed outdoors. Miguel and Maya sat through the first hakafah, procession, through the synagogue with a half dozen Torah scrolls. I jumped into one of several circles and danced with friends and strangers.

“You two should do this next hakafah,” I said to Miguel and Maya. “There will be treats soon for the kids.”

Maya was not yet convinced, so she stood the side while Miguel and I circled around the room. Then he and I broke from the group and sauntered over to Maya. I crossed my arms and grabbed Miguel’s, which were also crossed. I said, “Now lean back.” Then we spun each other around and around until he tumbled to the ground. Miguel’s eyes grew wide and he started laughing hysterically.

“I want to do that again,” he said.

Maya came over and immediately wanted to join in. Miguel said, “OK, just one more time for Daddy and me.” Maya waited patiently and then joined hands with Miguel and me, and we pranced around in a circle, ending our mini-procession with Miguel on his back and Maya toppled on him.

We danced the last hakafot (plural for hakafah) away from the main group, for the two of them could not get enough of the circling and falling and squealing with delight. They finally slipped away and went outside to slide down the hill near the Sukkah in the synagogue’s courtyard.

Soon they took a break back in their seats and munched from the bags of candy each child was given. A friend of mine looked over at them on the other side of the room and said, “They are so well behaved.”

Yes, that is what a bag of hard candies and taffy will do to my kids, focus them quietly on the task at hand.

Before we left, we gathered in a big circle in the social hall and all the adults helped unfurl one Torah scroll. Then the rabbi proceeded to note the Jewish narrative highlights to the children, who were clustered inside the circle, as he walked around and pointed at the columns of ancient Hebrew.

On the way home I asked them if they’d had a good time.

“Yes,” they both answered.

“What was fun?” I asked.

“Dancing around and getting candy,” they both answered quickly.

Simchat Torah might never rival Hanukkah for Jewish celebratory splendor (hey, it’s hard to compete with an 8-day festival that shares seasonal glory with Christmas), but, then again, it doesn’t have to. For Miguel and Maya, Simchat Torah was dancing and candy. For me, it was reconnecting with fond memories, celebrating our heritage, and exposing my children to the joy of Jewish ritual.