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.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Like many people who came of age in the 1960s and early 1970s, I watched way too much TV. But I do have fond memories of my love affair with what some not-so-affectionately refer to as the Boob Tube. Saturday mornings, for example, when my brother and I would rise early and plunk ourselves down for a seemingly endless marathon of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and a whole raft of other Warner Brothers and Hanna-Barbera animated delights.

I also remember, though, rushing to get home from playing tennis with friends when I was either a freshman or sophomore in high school so I could watch my afternoon soap operas, General Hospital and One Life to Live. Yes, I left in the middle of the friendly game.

What is amazing and fascinating (and maybe even a tad pathetic) about television as a socio-cultural phenomenon is how it can transport us back to specific moments in time. I was a sleepy ten year-old in 1969 when my mother forced me to stay awake and watch the lunar landing because, she said, we were witnessing history. I saw Michael Jackson moonwalk live in TV on the 25th Motown Anniversary Special in 1983. I was with Dan and Georgette, my roommates in Hartford, CT. I huddled with friends for the last episodes of MASH, Cheers, and Seinfeld. I stood in the cramped maintenance office of the synagogue in 2004 and saw the Red Sox clinch their first World Series in 86 years.

TV has also been a shared experience since I’ve married Verna. We had a standing Thursday evening date to watch Cheers. And we laughed as we followed the often hilarious travails of the Buchmans (played by Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt) on Mad About You on Sunday evenings. That show was particularly special for us because it mirrored in so many ways our lives: an interfaith couple dealing with the ups and downs of family, work, and children.

But at the same time, I hated my addiction. TV often kept me from doing more productive things, reading books, studying, solving a myriad of world problems. TV never interfered with my parental duties, but once the kids were asleep I often allowed myself to be lulled by the soft and hypnotic light of the screen.

So I resolved about five years ago to conquer my somewhat unhealthy habit and go cold tofu turkey. No TV unless it was a major sporting event (hey, who says I have to be internally consistent?) or movie-date night with Verna on Friday evenings. I spent most evenings reading or doing work on the computer, writing articles, working on a book or two, catching up on emails, or plotting a non-violent world revolution, stuff like that.

I was doing quite well and avoiding almost all TV until 2006. That was when Verna was first diagnosed with breast cancer. During her chemotherapy treatments and subsequent surgery and radiation, she spent a significant amount of time resting on the couch in the living room. Family and friends brought her DVDs in order to pass the time, for she was unable to concentrate on much else besides mindless and entertaining TV and movies.

And that’s when my recent TV troubles began. Verna understandably got hooked on a few TV shows, which we decided to view a year later when the next season became available for rental at the local video store or on Netflix.

The problem for me was that I chose to watch some of those shows, the entertaining ones (Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy, How I Met Your Mother), with her. I rationalized that it was way to spend time with Verna, even though watching TV is a very passive form of communication and interaction, when we are acutely aware that our history together might not last 20, 30, or 40 more years. And given that I was feeling extremely anxious about her cancer and our lives and the effects on the children, and scraping by financially, and being unhappy in sales, and commuting 50 minutes each way to work, and worrying about Verna’s health and future, it was natural to a degree to become seduced again the diversion of TV. So I did.

Where am I now? Still reading a lot, but also glad that the previous season of Desperate Housewives is behind me and last season’s Grey’s Anatomy is half over. And once we watch season four of How I Met Your Mother, there are no shows left on the horizon to tantalize me and cause me to fall off the shaky wagon by occupying my evenings.

At least until we can rent Arab Labor, a highly rated Palestinian show from Israel, or add Desperate Anatomy Mother Closer Medium to our Netflix queue.

There is a very good reason why the revolution will not be televised: TV sucks out our life-force, our essence. But, gosh, it is also often lots of fun.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream...Part 2

I yelled yesterday morning.

I was pushing Maya in her stroller just after we left Miguel when we passed a 7th grader headed towards the middle school. Two friends of his passed him on bikes, and one of them sort of taunted him by saying, “Hey, how’s it going?”

The long blond haired walker, who was hauling his backpack, immediately responded, “F*** you.” Then he paused for a brief moment and unleashed two more f-bombs at the kids cycling away from him.

I turned back and shouted, “Hey!” The kid glanced back at me, surprised, I think, that he’d been caught. He just kept walking to school, silently.

Maya looked up at me and said, “Why are you yelling, daddy?”

Had someone told her about my pledge not to yell?

“I screamed because he used bad words,” I said.

That seemed to satisfy Maya because she didn’t ask me anything else. She may have also been preoccupied with our mission that morning before I dropped her off at preschool: hot chocolate at Starbuck’s.

I didn’t feel badly about raising my voice. On the contrary, the kid needed to know his behavior was unacceptable, especially in front of a three-year-old munching on a S’mores-flavored Z Bar.

So then I started wondering about why some people think it’s socially permissible to unleash a torrent of swear words in public? I am no social or personal prude, but I think restraint can be an admirable value and goal to work toward especially in view of minors.

Miguel and I were at a San Francisco 49ers preseason game recently, about six rows behind a drunken 30-something in a Bruce Lee t-shirt who kept pointing haphazardly at people around him and shouting, “What the f*** are you looking at? You pussies. What the f*** are you gonna do about it? Huh?!?”

Then he’d point at his t-shirt and raise both middle fingers to further taunt those around him. Fortunately, no one rose to the beer-sodden challenge of the loser and attempted to shut him up, thereby possibly instigating a larger incident.

But Miguel and I did see a few fights in the stands, which I am sure were fueled by excessive amounts of alcohol. He was slightly scared, and I was extremely uncomfortable and unhappy. At least, though, we hadn’t paid for our seats. They’d been a gift from friends.

Now I know all I had to do was either text (OK, I have never texted) or call security and the offender[s] would be removed from the stadium. But I didn’t. It was easy to shout at some unknown 12-year old walking to school, but scarier about being part, even in an anonymous way, of a confrontation with an alcohol-addled hothead.

I think I did say something to a guy at an Oakland A’s game once because he was just behind Miguel and me. He was swearing at some of the players from the opposing team and he may have insulted Ken Griffey Jr.’s mother. So I wasn’t going to let his verbal excess in Miguel’s presence continue. He quickly acquiesced without any further problems.

I am not advocating a return to 1950s civility, but I do wonder if in this age of social networking some people feel emboldened to speak their minds in whatever fashion they prefer at particular moments?

Not yelling is still my goal. Just don’t swear within earshot of my family or me and then you can avoid provoking my inner and outer screamer, which might be ironic since I am begging for an infusion of social restraint.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream...

I have a loud voice, which surprises no one who knows me. Verna used to hide in the bedroom when I used the phone in our cramped San Francisco apartment in the early 1990's. My normal voice is booming and it drove her crazy. I am the guy who can deliver a speech to 250 people in a crowded hall and not need a microphone for everyone to easily hear me.

Having a voice that vibrates the air close to the speed of sound helped me when I was a schoolteacher as well. I had to raise it slightly, what I called yelling and what others termed screaming at ear-splitting decibels, to get everyone’s attention at the school and in several nearby towns.

But I consider myself fairly normal, meaning as a parent with two kids I yell at times when I am angry, but I don't think I overdo it. Maya doesn’t like it all when anyone raises a voice to her. She says, “Don’t be mad at me,” and then cries. Miguel, I always thought, seemed rather nonchalant when I vented at him or expressed displeasure with a scream. He always had a detached look on his face and seemed to be saying, “Whatever.”

As it turns out, however, I was wrong.

Last Friday night, Miguel admitted my loud voice or yelling scares him. I don’t recall now only three days later what triggered our conversation, but it was an eye-opener. Not that I am a candidate for anger management classes, but given Verna’s health these days I am going to be more stressed than usual, so I need to control myself before things do spin off their axis. What I mean is just because I may be relatively calm most of the time doesn’t make me feel good about scaring my son.

“Miguel, I never knew my yelling scared you,” I said that night. “You never showed that it bothered you.”

“I felt it internally,” he said. “It caused an internal conflict.” Then he smiled and added, “We just learned about internal conflict in English class.”

So now Miguel is using literary terms to describe his inner being when his father occasionally yells at him. I immediately internalized this revelation and went around muttering to Verna and myself, “I can’t believe Miguel’s been scared by my yelling.”

I felt guilty and ashamed. Anger has its place in parent-child relations, but I felt crappy that my loud voice scares him. So I declared to Verna and myself, “That’s it. I am not going to yell anymore.”

“Yeah, right,” she said. “Why promise something that is next-to-impossible?”

Thank you for that vote of confidence, honey. But Verna is a realist and knows that most of us have various boiling points at which we erupt. And she certainly knows mine quite well given that we’ve been together for more than 19 years.

But I have been known to alter my lifestyle nearly immediately in the past. I became a vegetarian within a week in 1979 after proofreading a friend’s freshman English composition paper about the benefits of a plant-based diet (OK, I abandoned it several weeks ago). And I started running to train for a marathon in 1978 right after talking about amazing athletic feats with the security guard in my college dorm.

So I do believe I can change and I have faith in myself. I know that yelling is considered normal, but why can’t I avoid losing my temper except with political cretins and anti-semites?

The true test, I know, comes with time. As Verna approaches cancer treatments (chemo or radiation) and Miguel nears being a teenager and Maya remains her amazing and temperamental-at-times self and I am balancing a job as a funeral director, part time teacher, tutor, and freelance writer, I will find myself overcome by daily frustrations and anxiety. It will be easy to lash out at those closest to me. Or…

I can be like Gandhi (did he ever yell?) or another modern day saint. Does one have to be sainted to avoid yelling? Hey, weren’t the saints just regular people who accomplished the extraordinary until after they died? Anyway…

So far I have passed the tests (OK, it’s been about two days) I have imposed on myself. Yesterday, Miguel, our teenager-in-training, somehow clogged his ears several times when I asked him to put away a few things. Then he finally got up and just dropped the items on the landing going upstairs. I felt the anger the rising and my response was about to be, “Miguel, what’s your problem? Are you listening or not? Put those things away in your room exactly where they belong!”

But I didn’t. I just repeated myself a few more times, with a mild warning about being imprisoned in said room, and Miguel reluctantly completed his task. Not that anger is wrong, but I liked being in control.

Then Maya, who hadn’t taken a nap and was feeling a bit frayed by life, started acting out over something everyone else on the planet except her would've deemed trivial. My first impulse was to rage, “Maya, stop it right now!” But I didn’t. I let her flail on the floor and then asked her if she needed a hug. She ignored me and continued crying. Finally she stopped and I read her a book on the couch.

If she had persisted with her temper tantrum and even yelled, I wonder if that would’ve caused me an internal conflict?