Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Holiday Spirit

I used to be a Jewish chauvinist. When I was a teenager, I refused to go to two cousins' weddings because they were marrying non-Jews. One relative, a first cousin of my father's, was making a commitment with someone who'd stood with her through the death of her mother.

But I sent her a note explaining why I couldn't attend her nuptials and felt I was doing the right thing. Well, they've been happily married for more than 35 years, both are wonderfully sweet, and, after I met and married a nice Catholic girl in the early 90s, I've apologized for my myopia several times in letters and in person.

Interestingly, after Verna and I got engaged someone sent me an article that said intermarriage finishes the work of Hitler. I'd love to say I had my interfaith-we-are-the-world epiphany before the ugly responses to my mixed marriage. But that would not be true.

I grew up in a very Jewish household. My maternal grandmother, who was never dogmatic, even tore her toilet paper before the Jewish Sabbath so she wouldn't violate the Biblical and Talmudic directives against work on the day of rest. My mother once threatened serious illness after I asked out a non-Jewish girl when I was 19.

But when I fell in love with someone who was not Jewish and I encountered varying degrees of hostility, I realized, shamefully, that my teenaged behavior had been unbecoming. It was easy to criticize those who seemed so narrow-minded, but my response when I was about 15 was certainly on the spectrum of insularity. So who was I to criticize?

On the other hand, many in the Jewish community continue during the Christmas holiday to wax religious about the Christmas dilemma. What should Jews and Jewish parents do when all things Santa, reindeer, elves, present, jingle bells, carols and more are splashed across every inch of our culture? Can we truly preserve our faith with a little Chinese food and a movie?

Obviously it's different for me now. As Maya likes to say, "Dad, you're Jewish, but Miguel and I are Jewish and Catholic." And that means we do celebrate both holidays. We have a Christmas tree and each light a menorah.

After my early dalliance with Jewish chauvinism, I can easily admit that I like Christmas, and have always liked the spirit of the holiday. Like many Christians, my biggest issue with Christmas these days is that we've allowed the holiday to become way too commercial. Even Maya responds that Christmas is about "getting presents," which I know is normal for an almost six-year-old, but I don't want that idea reinforced much longer.

So we go give as much as possible, to each other, to strangers, with time and money. Last year we bought Starbucks gift cards and handed them out to people on the streets. It was a small (and maybe token) gesture, but I want Miguel and Maya to be exposed to giving. And I try to model that all year long.

I do see how people devolve into confusion and outright nastiness towards cultural and religious differences at this time of year, and it's not good for us as Americans or as people of the world. Several years ago, the local Jewish paper, which I've freelanced for since 2003, ran an article about an Orthodox rabbi who forbid his congregants to read from the Torah (first five books of Moses) on Christmas Eve or Christmas day, saying it was a mark against God. When Verna and I read that, I cringed and she railed against the prejudice of some of my religion's adherents.

"Now you know why I would never convert," she'd said.

Judaism and Catholicism are part of my religious and spiritual life now and will be for a long, long time. And that's a good thing. I am Jewish, but I do enjoy celebrating Christianity with my loved ones. And learning more about faith from different perspectives.

I wish the fringe religious group in Florida who pressured Lowe's to pull it's advertising from a reality show based on Muslim Americans could have absorbed some of the wisdom I came to later in life. I finally learned that if there is a God, then we are all that Deity's children. Instead of railing against people who worship and celebrate differently, why don't find time for tolerance, respect, inclusion, and sublime wonder at the diversity of our country (and planet)?

If I had to do it all over again, I'd attend both weddings, celebrate with abandon, and share familial joy. But maybe my early chauvinism and later renunciation of that behavior has helped me become more sensitive to my interfaith family and to solidify a commitment to preserving that appreciation (and all that entails) for the rest of my life.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Way Past The 3 Rs

Well, I haven't hunkered down to work on the memoir, so I might as well blog and write something. Life's been great and busy, which I imagine it is for many of us.

A few weeks ago I tried to rouse Miguel from his usual teenaged state of nighttime inactivity.

"C'mon, Miguel, brush your teeth, put in your headgear, and then we can watch some Dick," I said.

"Dad, that doesn't sound right."

"Dick Van Dyke. Dick Van Dyke," I said, referring to the classic TV DVDs we'd been viewing before bed. We'd started with Andy Griffith. "Why does it always have to be about that?"

"Because I'm 13," he responded.

And then I was thrust back to my own hormonally driven adolescence and I remembered, with all too much clarity, the irreverent humor and endless joke about sex, sexual acts, bodies, breasts, and the like that I shared with my friends.

So I realized I can use some of his reactions as teachable moments. This morning, for example, while I'm home with laryngitis (proving that God does have a sense of humor) and general malaise, I watched Miguel play one of his PS3 games, in which he skateboards through urban settings. His self-designed character was shirtless and sported a bikini-clad babe tattoo across his ripped abs.

"Miguel, what's up with the tattoo?" I asked. I am sure at this point he would've preferred I'd gone to work.

"It's just a tattoo," he said.

I then launched into a brief discussion (OK, I did most of the talking) about what it means to objectify women. I am pretty sure the concept of objectifying anyone went over his head, as it would've mine all those years ago. But I hope my message will eventually seep in.

"Miguel, I just don't want you to see women as functions of their bodies," I said as he manipulated his toggles.

For him, it's a game; for me, it's about life and values and how we position ourselves in the world. And, as he finishes eighth grade and enters high school amid a flurry of social interactions and experiences, I want my voice to be a prominent guide.

While I willingly accept the opportunity to help mould my teenaged son, I am not ready to explore sex education or anything related with Maya. Sometimes, though, I have no choice.

Last night, as she was getting ready for bed, she looked at a photo of Verna, Miguel, and me and said, "I was still in Mommy's tummy."

"Well, Maya, you were still with God in Heaven," I said.

"I was an angel?"

"Yes, you were an angel," I said.

"What happened to my wings when I was born?" she asked.

"God took them," I answered.

"Before I came out of Mommy's tummy?"

"Yes," I said.

"Is that how babies get born, from the tummy?" she asked.

"Some babies do," I said. "But most babies come out from the vagina."

Her eyes widened and she looked at me. "Really?"

We then had a discussion, with her asking most of the questions, about how God helps push the babies down the canal and then the doctor or nurse helps deliver them.

I was almost about to tell her about the stork and just make it easy on myself. Eventually we stopped talking about babies and birthing and she picked out of book for me to ready before bed, Fancy Nancy. But sometimes it's easier to deal with a slightly somnambulant teen versus a highly inquisitive kindergartener.

Parenting. Oy. I mean, joy.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


This is going to be my last blog entry for a while. I need to hunker down and get serious about writing the memoir of our cancer journey.

If I had to choose one thing I like best about going on vacation it would be the freedom. Vacations mean not being tied to a schedule, worrying about getting up at a certain time, fixing breakfast, shuttling kids to school, working, preparing dinners, or shepherding kids to the park.

Vacations mean going with the flow. You may have a daily plan--sightseeing at a particular spot--but the vibe is usually relaxed and open-ended.

Lest anyone think I am a hippie wannabe on vacation who floats around singing kumbaya and stares at waves lapping the shore, I have had my tenser moments. Several years ago, when Verna and I were engaged, we went to Costa Rica after she got her teaching credential. We stayed at some beachside cabins in Tortugero, and I badgered the gentle proprietors about when they were serving lunch so I could fit a run into my afternoon.

Verna was rightfully livid with me for not being able to appreciate our hosts' generosity and stop focusing on whether or not I worked out one day.

But, for the most part, vacations are about letting go, releasing most control, and seeing what surprises lurk inside every experience.

What follows is a selective travelogue of our recent trip to Hawaii, June 12-19.

Monday, June 13:

We decide to tour the USS Arizona Memorial. My father-in-law, Martin, a former Marine and Merchant Marine, says, "It's supposed to be the best memorial on the island."

I worry how kid friendly the memorial will be, especially for five-year old Maya. Martin and Miguel sharing the experience together is great inter-generational bonding and will teach Miguel some of our nation's history through the personal lens of a close relative who was about his age when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

But I am not sure about Maya. As soon as we arrive we pick up tickets for required video to sail over to the actual memorial site, a 10 minute boat ride away. I say to the attendant, "Is the movie appropriate for my daughter who is five?"

"Sure," he answers. "Though there's some bombing towards the end."

"OK," I say to him, Miguel, and Martin, "we'll just wait outside. Is that all right?"

"Certainly," the attendant responds. "You can meet them afterwards and then board the boat."

Miguel and Martin think I am babying Maya. "Are you going to raise her in a nunnery?"

"Her mother died last year," I say quietly. "She was traumatized enough. I'm not going to subject her to the movie."

On the boat ride over to the memorial, Miguel confides, "You were right. The movie was not appropriate for Maya."

The memorial is solemn, reverent, and somewhat moving. I think Miguel is bored, and Maya is just Maya. She has enough energy for whatever we are doing. We later climb atop and inside a submarine, which both of them think is cool. We eat dinner at Gordon Biersch, a brew pub fairly popular in the San Francisco Bay area.

Tuesday, June 14:

Beach day. Martin decides to venture out on his own, for he loathes surf and sand. The kids and I explore the Ala Mauna Park about 3 miles from our apartment. It is a nice but not spectacular Hawaiian beach--waves crashing against the shore, palm trees waving in the wind, sunshine, warm breezes, saltwater redolent in the air.

But I sense we could do better, so we return to the car and venture another three miles west to Waikiki. The beaches there are close to spectacular. There are far more people, the ocean is nearly bath water warm, and the waves have some edge.

We park the car outside the Rock Island Cafe, a 1960s themed eatery, filled with posters, knickknacks, bobbleheads, Life magazines, keychains, license plates, lunch boxes and more, all festooned with images from popular cultural icons of nearly 50 years ago, as sixties hits blare on the speakers. Miguel orders a chili cheese dog, Maya opts for chicken strips, and I get the veggie burger.

Then, with Hawaii 5-0 music screaming from the heavens, we hit Waikiki beach. Miguel and I immediately plunge in and start bodysurfing. Maya lolls about on the shore, afraid to come in much deeper than her knees. But as the surf's intensity increases, she is knocked down to the watery sand several times, twice completely covered by water, but each time she bolts up giggling and squealing in delight. Her smile is as bright as the sun.

"Dad, you are watching Maya, right?"


On the way back to the car, Miguel says, "Can I buy a ukelele?" We'd earlier passed a small store tucked around the corner from the beach.

"Sure," I say, and it turns out they offer free lessons every morning at 10. Prices range from $49-$3500. I purchase one that includes a tuner, DVD, a live hula dancer, and music book, all for under $100.

Wednesday, June 15:

We return to Waikiki with Martin, who plans to hike to Diamond Head, for Miguel's lesson and a full day on the soft sand of the beach. After Miguel's 30-minute class, we plop ourselves down next to three women. Miguel and I race into the ocean while Maya dances lightly on the edge of the water. He stays in while Maya and I lounge on our towels and engage the three women, obviously alone, whom we learn are scientists from Oslo, Norway. They work for Norway's Radiation Protection Authority.

We invite Eva, Ingrid, and Tonje to lunch. They are all single (though Eva was married and has a six year old daughter) and they share the opinion that Norwegian women are choosy and independent. The trio loves to travel and has no need right now for a serious or sustained relationship.

We part ways after lunch, and the kids and I head to the beach. Miguel and I rent boogie boards, which make our version of surfing even more enjoyable as we glide atop the water.

Thursday, June 16:

I take the kids to a local water park, about 30 minutes outside Honolulu. Maya waits while Miguel and I quickly go on two bigger kids' water slides, before I take her over to the kiddie section where she frolics down several slides and in two wading pools for hours and hours and hours.

Every hour or so, Miguel checks in and he and I do a slide together, while Maya dutifully sits on the bench at the entrance/exit. Miguel seems happy, though, to be on his own. By the end of the day, neither of them wants to leave when the park closes at 4:30.

Friday, June 17:

We journey to Haleiwa, about 30 minutes from Honolulu on the island's North Shore. Haleiwa is a sleepy town, with a Hawaii-tourist-hippie-artsy vibe. Before our arrival, though, we make a 90-minute pit stop at the Dole Pineapple Plantation, and spend nearly one-hour inside the world's largest pineapple maze, searching for 8 stations with various icons we need to stencil onto our tickets.

Haleiwa is also known for being the sort of gateway to Hawaii's most famous surfing beaches, including the granddaddy, Bonzai or Pipeline Beach. Once we get there we decide to skip lunch and sample what one friend said is Hawaii's best shaved ice at Matsumoto's, where the line of hungry customers snakes around the store.

The shaved ice is good but very sweet.

Saturday, June 18:

I drive the kids to Hanauma Bay, a protected beach surrounded by massive mountains, dense forests, and blue-green water, which offers the island's only snorkeling. Miguel, Maya, and I suit up and he and I venture out toward the algae encrusted rocks, where we see a rich variety of fish--tang, surgeon, trigger, butterfly, parrot--in blurs of yellow, white, black, orange, blue, green, and gray.

Maya dons her snorkeling gear but swims close to the shore because, in her own words, "I don't want to sink."

While we are sunning ourselves on the beach, a cooling breeze whipping off the bay, I see two women, one much older, heading into the water. The older one snaps several photos of the younger one. I get up and announce to Miguel, "Watch me."

Then I step into the water and say, "Would you like me to take one of both of you?"

Gurjit, the mother, and her 19-year old daughter, Sevan, are visiting from London. I tell them that I was widowed last summer and this trip was planned immediately after Verna died.

"I lost my husband 13 years ago," Gurjit says.

She is a therapist specializing in the sexual abuse of children. Her husband had been en route to his mother's funeral in India when the taxi driver fell asleep. He died three days later thousands of miles from home in a village outside his natal home in India. She was left to care for Sevan and run the restaurant her husband owned (and was named Sevan's).

For eight years, Gurjit slept three hours a night and managed the restaurant and worked full-time as a therapist.

Sevan gazes at her mom as her mom shares the story, "She's my hero," says Sevan, who is in college two hours away but comes home every weekend.

"She's my hero," I say.

Sunday, June 19:

On the not quite five hour plane ride home, on Father's Day, as Maya sleeps with her head on my left arm, Miguel and I watch Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in The Adjustment Bureau, a fairly enjoyable and well-acted drama about love and fate and destiny. I think of Verna and how we always felt we were somehow destined to meet, fall in love, and create a family. We never anticipated breast cancer and her death five weeks before she turned 46.

I have tears in my eyes as the movie ends and Damon and Blunt are locked in an eternal embrace that basically alters the course of their lives and allows their fates together to prevail. I am sad about my loss but grateful for the 20 years we were together. Twenty years where Verna and I basically knew what the plan was, how we'd allowed our lives to be scripted and how our choices would unfold.

Oh, there were surprises, but none as exciting as when we went on vacation. Having learned from my rigidity in Costa Rica and one other vacation early, early in our marriage, by the time we stormed Cabo San Lucas in the summer of 2008, on what was our first vacation alone in 11 years and last one as well, we were a bundle of sublime bliss and relaxation.

On one hand, I wish I knew the plan for me for the next 20 years. On the other, though, the uncertainty lends itself to the possibility of daily adventures. Life will unfold for me and my loved ones, but for now I am content to treat it as much as possible as a vacation, not completely sure of the details, the direction, or even the outcome. Just enjoying the journey.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Life Goes On And On

I got married last night.

Maya hopped out of the bath, as I held up her black and red with white polka dots Minnie Mouse towel, and kissed me on the lips.

"Now we're married," she said.

"Sounds good to me."

We'd spoken on the phone earlier that morning because I'd been away since Friday. "I am so excited because Daddy is coming home today," she sang into my ear. I was beyond elated.

I was actually not surprised about our sudden nuptials just a little over nine months since Verna died. I did scoop up the garter last weekend amid a cluster of guys who exhibited as much enthusiasm for the exercise as sloths doped up on sleeping pills at the wedding I officiated at in Seattle. So I was just fulfilling my destiny.

Maya and I made may have sailed, though, into the turbulent waters that confront almost all newlyweds. She told me this morning that, "I wish I didn't have a daddy."

My crime? I said she needed to finish her entire breakfast, a tiny swatch of quesadilla and a few pieces of scrambled eggs.

Yes, I can be too demanding and that may have doomed our happily ever after.

Tonight, at what turned out to be Miguel's final baseball game of the season, she admitted the bitter truth. "We're not married," she laughed. "That was just pretend."

A dagger to my already wounded heart, a dose of reality upside my head and heart? Hey, the short-lived matrimonial union had its upside. I brushed her teeth, read her William's Doll, and tucked her under five layers of sheets and blankets. Then I had an hour to myself.


Last Thursday night I took Maya for a walk around the park in our neighborhood. She wanted to stroll outside in the evening light while Miguel watched the NBA Finals. While she played with her preschool friend, Mackie, and his younger sister, Emma, I gazed at a group of mostly Mexicans engaged in a friendly basketball game on the hardtop. I noticed a friend of ours, N, whose real name I will not use for he is not in this country legally.

We met N and his then girlfriend, T, and their then two year old son, N, about two years ago. N, the son, and Maya loved to play together, and N, the father, and T treated her as if she were their daughter. They pushed her on the swings, took her on long walks around the perimeter of the park, and bought her ice cream and popsicles in the summertime.

N, sweaty and flushed after an intense game, came over and hugged me. He is a landscaper who works at least 40 hours a week. He is also a hands on father. I've seen him pushing Maya and his son on the swings, tossing a baseball to his son, and kicking a soccer ball with him.

"Hello Maya," he said.

"How are you Senor?" I asked.

"Good, good."

"Where are T and N?" Maya asked.

"Home." He paused. "T is not well. She is..." Then he moved his hand 180 degrees from mid-chest to belly.

"Pregnant?" I asked.

"Yes," he said, as his lips curled upwards.

I hugged him again and said, "That is so wonderful. I am so excited." I felt tears wet my eyes.

T is due around Christmas, a true holiday miracle. The three of them are very special to me because early last year or late in 2009 I officiated at their wedding ceremony, a hastily arranged event right outside my home on the eastern edge of the park.

N and T are Jehovah's Witnesses, both from Mexico and both undocumented immigrants. Until she got pregnant again, T worked evenings as a waitress. She has gently frosted hair and a beaming smile. After I told them I did weddings they asked me to perform one for them.

"How much?" they'd asked.

"Nothing," I said. "Just get the license." I snagged two passersby and conducted a short ceremony for two loving people who are always present for their son (and daughter to be) and toil hard in this country.

A week later they brought us a home baked Mexican cake. It was delicious. N left a message on my cell phone weeks after Verna died last August. I hadn't seen them in a couple of months or more.

"I am so sorry for your loss. Please call me anytime," he said and left me his number. I phoned and we spoke briefly. We didn't see them for a few more months, but we hugged tightly in the parking lot of a department store as they again expressed their condolences.

Somehow I have this powerful feeling that their daughter, the ultimate Christmas gift of life, is going to be very, very special. I believe she has at least one very potent angel looking out for her.


My mother has a first cousin, Renee, who lived home with her parents all her life. She always had friends outside the home, went on trips, carved out her own life, but she also spent vacations with her parents, my Uncle Max, the brother of my grandmother, and Aunt Irene.

Irene died a few years ago, and Renee continued to care for her father as his health declined until he died at the age of 95. Renee still lives in that split-level home in West Hartford, CT. Renee, my mother informed me, attends synagogue regularly. Not only does she recite the traditional prayers of praise to God and in memory of her departed loved ones. But Renee, who is in her 60s, chauffeurs older members of the community on routine errands.

She still has a full social life with friends she's amassed, but she also embraces her role as caregiver to those in need. I think she's amazing for how she copes with profound loss.

Love, life, death. Life goes on and on.

Monday, May 30, 2011

I Can See Clearly Now

I was reading Thomas Merton's spiritual autobiography and listening to London Calling and Police on My Back by The Clash as Miguel, Maya, and I were flying back from Seattle this evening. Welcome to the living Yin and Yang of my life or, as the late anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss said, the binary opposites that blend together to form the whole me.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the seemingly disparate strands that make up who I am (and just about everyone else on the planet). For example, I have a deep passion for jazz and classical music, but still thump my body to rock and roll daily and will never forget how I scored a second row seat (yes, I went alone) to see Journey in concert in Hartford, CT, in 1986.

I am pretty solid emotionally, but cry when I hear certain songs or watch certain commercials on TV. I have a post-graduate degree, but love Jerry Lewis movies, the Farrelly Brothers, and some of the work of Adam Sandler.

I know, I know, one's level of education does not necessarily correspond to one's cultural tastes. But, believe me, my friends and co-workers, when I toiled for a Connecticut political organization, teased me about Journey and the other popular rock and roll I favored over the Grateful Dead and other 'deeper' music. So I have always been sensitive about my apparent contradictory pleasures and paths.

Until now.

Merton and the Clash can co-exist, in my universe for sure.

I guess the biggest expression of this binary opposition has been my officiating of weddings. On one hand, I am a widower who feels a strong measure of sadness around love, happiness, and commitment. Not that I want anyone to be unhappy, but I do feel wistful when I gaze at couples taking the marital plunge or holding hands in the park or nuzzling at a restaurant. On the other hand, weddings can be a heck of a lot of fun, and I do feel a tremendous honor in helping two people begin their married lives together.

And there is another yin and yang moment. Many people rightfully see me as a wise guy who rarely takes much (including myself) seriously. But I also feel that I am participating in something deeply sacred when I officiate at a wedding. I felt the same when I was a funeral director, which is the reason I took the job, and again when I watched my mother-in-law die in 2008 and when I whispered to Verna minutes before she took her last breaths in 2010.

Sacred is as sacred does.

Which brings me back to weddings. I did one two weeks ago in Napa, and when the couple hired me in February, they said, "We are not just looking for an officiant, we want someone to form a relationship with."

"Does that mean I can go on your honeymoon?" I asked. They just left for a month in Italy.

So while I wistfully watched as Jen and Bryan began their happily ever after, and mingled with Jen's parents, Bryan's sister and her fiance, and sampled awesome radishes, I felt blessed to be present for them. During the ceremony, which I always personalize, I mentioned how Jen was, um, really focused on all the details. She sent me an email that said, "The wedding coordinator expects your ass on the shuttle by 2:45." So I repeated that line in the ceremony.

Later Jen literally yanked me onto the dance floor and said, "I can't believe you said 'ass' during the ceremony."

"Was that OK?" I asked somewhat sheepishly.

"Only you could pull it off," she said, before leading me through a dance where she twirled me around and then thanked me.

I slipped away while the party was still raging, in a vineyard with an Italian-like villa and under partly cloudy skies that held back the rain, content and sorrowful, with images of my own wedding day and night swirling through my mind.

The wedding I did this past Saturday was held in a large loft studio in downtown Seattle. The bride is the niece of Verna's and my sister-in-law, who is married to Verna's brother. The days leading up to the ceremony, I've been told, were incredibly stressful where vendors flaked out, plans were dashed and redrawn, and the bride was so overwhelmed that she got hives.

The ceremony, if I have to be honest, was great. I recited a few poems, weaved in wisdom for the couple, shared how Kelly and Courtney met, how Kelly was unsure at first of his feelings for Courtney, and how he sought counsel from his grandmother, and then listened with moist eyes as Kelly and Courtney were unable to read their vows to each other without gushing in tears. Then I closed with a Lao Tzu poem about the sacred space a couple must carve out for their love before I whispered--at their request--just to them that it was my "supreme pleasure and honor to pronounce you married; Kelly, you may kiss the bride."

I spent most of the evening with family, then dragged Miguel onto the dance floor (Maya was with friends because young kids were not invited to the evening wedding), and then boogied to several songs, some with Miguel literally on my back as I twirled him around, before I almost quietly stepped away with my son and drove back to our friends' house by Green Lake.

See, I just had to push the envelope slightly. Since I am single I pulled Miguel with me and lined up with a half dozen other bachelors for the tossing of the garter. The cluster of guys near us said, "No contest here, we're all jaded," which was an interesting comment for they were there with their girlfriends. Miguel was just confused, but stood next to me anyway.

After two misfires, Kelly's third toss of the garter soared sort of in the air and landed near my left shoe. I slowly reached down and picked it up as everyone cheered. My only thought was, "Oh s**t."

Was I supposed to put it on the woman who'd caught the bouquet and was certainly young enough to be my daughter, as I am 52? Was I supposed to keep it or return it to the bride and groom? Or just fling it out the window and then follow?

Someone said, "Just put it on and dance."

So I did. And by the next day I had four marriage proposals. Just kidding. I saw Kelly and Courtney last night for dinner, a send-off sponsored by Courtney's great aunt, before the newlyweds left today on their honeymoon, to which I wasn't invited, and they also said, "Keep it."

I stuffed the garter, which represents, I guess, hope and love and all that (blah, blah, blah), in my closet next to my haircut kit and sachet of lavender. Just call it another strange pairing that somehow makes perfect sense--at least to me--as I navigate the turbulent and placid waters of life as I know it.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Not Makin' Whoopee

I promise this entry will not contain graphic or lurid details of sex education.

Honest. I promise.

It’s more about values, and how we pass on moral messages to our children and fortify ourselves as role models. You know, do as I say and do.

On the way home from school yesterday, Miguel shared with me the day’s sex education lesson.
Kids can ask any question they want. The question was: Which is better, oral or anal sex?

“It wasn’t my question,” he said.

“What did the teacher say?” I asked. For some reason, the question was posed to the language arts instructor, not the science one, who teaches the unit.

“She said, ‘That’s a personal question,’ Miguel said. “So which is better?”

I will not divulge my answer, nor reveal my response to his next question: “Have you ever had oral sex?”

My answers are unimportant. I will admit that I was speechless as he fired his questions much more rapidly than I felt equipped to answer.

I always knew I’d be Miguel’s go-to guy for all matters of sex, relationships, love, etc. Verna ceded that responsibility to me when Miguel was a toddler by virtue of our shared gender. Even though I am fully committed to offer age-and-developmentally appropriate honesty to my children about sex, my conversations with Miguel have always been slightly awkward.

He first asked me about babies and sex when he was eight. After I gave him a very brief introduction into sexual reproduction, he looked at me as if he’d just swallowed castor oil and raw eggs. From time to time, as he’s approached puberty and adolescence and his body has begun to change, there have been additional talks. I have tried to be as matter-of-fact as possible. Call me Jack Webb, Mr. Dragnet: just the facts.

Oh, I editorialize. I’ve thrown in a few things about protection, emotional readiness, not wanting to be a grandfather for at least 15 years. I am not even sure I needed to go in a few directions, but Miguel’s teachers have informed us parents that teenage sex (oral and otherwise) happens earlier and earlier.

Yes, I shudder. At 13 I was content to stand in the lunch line close enough to girls to inhale the fragrance of their shampoo. The world may have changed slightly when it comes to the sexes and sex in the 21st century.

So when I got back to work yesterday, a little addled after Miguel put me on the spot, I sought out the comfort of two male co-workers. They laughed with me as I retold the car conversation, and then one said, “It’s great that he could talk to you.”

And that’s when it hit me: yes, it is great he can talk to me. And he wanted to converse with me. I have not initiated a conversation yet about sex education. He was the one who came to me with the permission slip, and Miguel has usually shared with me the various sex education lessons. I have confined myself to asking the very general, “How was school today?”

To which he invariably replies, “Fine.”

Or I might say, “What’d you do in school today?” and he will offer, “Not much.”

But with sex education, I haven’t paid closer attention to the unit than any others. Partly because I am swamped with life, work, and just getting the kids fed, to school, and to their activities.

I do know, however, the awesome responsibility I have. And it’s not really about sex. Miguel barely has girls on his radar. He texts a few, but they are in the larger context of reaching out to friends. It is really about learning how to navigate the emotionally confusing and often physically awkward world of relationships, friendships, and the delicate social dance of teenagers.

Several weeks ago, after I mentioned a new female friend, he said, “Is she hot?”

“Miguel, that doesn’t matter,” I said, feeling as if I were banging my head against a wall and wondering if he was actually listening to me. “It’s what’s on the inside.”

But I bought him two posters of Megan Fox, which now adorn his bedroom wall, so what message is really bounding through him?

Welcome to my contradiction.

I still hope (and pray) Miguel learns about girls, young women, women, relationships, and, yes, sex, by the examples I’ve tried to set for the past 25 years. Time will, um, tell. I am not sure I want to know all the questions, but I am ready with answers.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Mother and Child Reunion

I wanted to do something special and memorable for our first Mother's Day without Verna. So I announced to the kids, “Let's bring some photos to the cemetery and share a story or memory of Mommy.

Miguel lowered his shoulders and shrugged in full teenager mode, “Do I have to?”

“No,” I said, “but Maya and are going to and you have to come with us.”

He brought a tennis ball and asked if we could play catch. “No, Miguel, it's a cemetery. We are going to be reverent,” I said, using a word I purposely knew was unfamiliar to him. “This is a sacred space.”

Then he asked if he could bound downhill over and across other grave markers. “No,” I said again, “do you need to ask?”

We knelt by Verna and her mother's grave marker. I wiped away some dried leaves, dirt, and grass, and emptied the water from a few flower pots. Someone had left fresh flowers that the deer had already snacked on.

Maya chose a photograph taken last August, less than two weeks before Verna died. Verna rests her head against the olive green cushion on our living room couch, a thin smile stretched across her lips, her face steroids puffy, clasping a completely naked Maya in her arms. Happiness is etched on Maya's face, the fingers on her left hand gently touching the cross around Verna's neck, her ears sparkling from what were then days old earrings.

I brought a photograph from 1997, just a week or so after we'd found out Verna was pregnant with Miguel. We are at the home of her best friend from kindergarten, Rose, and her husband, David, wearing Raybans and opening a bottle of champagne. I am wearing a homemade tie-dyed t-shirt and my formerly ubiquitous fanny pack. Verna has a black v-necked shirt and jeans shorts.

We were still stunned and elated that we were going to be parents. Verna was not quite 33. I'd just turned 38. I told Miguel and Maya how excited we'd been when Kaiser confirmed that Verna was indeed pregnant.

Miguel tossed the tennis ball. “Miguel, “ I said sternly. Maya flitted near me. My sister-in-law, Donna, showed up with her eldest daughter, Jillian, who turns 21 this year on what would have been Verna's and my 20th wedding anniversary.

Maya walked around the grass and gravestones with Jillian, then Miguel on the periphery started chasing the girls. Donna and I reminisced yet again about the surreal and awful times of last year, the pain crises that sent Verna to the hospital several times, the decision to defer her care to hospice, the tears, the anguish, and finally the reality that Verna's death was imminent slamming against us all like a vicious wave.

Later in the day, I said to Donna, “I felt so alone,” referring to me being Verna's primary caregiver the last two weeks of her life, totally responsible for administering and increasing the narcotic cocktails, and wavering about what was best for her, the kids, me, the rest of the family.

She responded, “It's time for me to give you a hug,” as she pulled me to her chest like a mother comforting a child.

Maya brought home a photograph of herself from school, a multicolored construction paper background, wearing a sweet smile as she gazes at the photographer, probably a preschool teacher. The picture is soft-framed with a blue matte and a white border, three flowers and a bumblebee on the corners.

Underneath the picture it says, You're the best! “It's a Mother's Day present for Mommy,” Maya said. “I wish I could give it to her.”

“Me, too,” I said.

Just three weeks ago, Maya stamped her foot outside our garage and said, “Daddy, I am angry. I want Mommy to come down and be with us, and hug us.”

“I know,” I said.

“And that's why I have been so grumpy,” she said apologetically. “Because I miss Mommy.”

I hugged and kissed her and wished I could bring Maya her Mommy down from Heaven, to sit on her bed so they could affix stickers in Maya's Disney princess sticker books.

But, alas, it is not to be. I know that, as do Miguel and Maya, but that still does not erase the longing, the confusion, the pain.

As Miguel and I walked upstairs on Mother's Day for his nightly routine (teeth brushing, one toss of his Oregon Ducks football, and then I read to him), he said, “I want to find a picture of Mommy and me and make it bigger and then put it in a really nice frame in my bedroom.”

I was temporarily speechless. Finally I said, “Sounds like a great idea.”

And completely reverent.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Heart of the Matter: Easter 2011

I celebrated Easter long before I married a nice Catholic girl, which is why I labored so hard this year, as the sole and Jewish parent, to offer Miguel and Maya something substantive about the holiday.

See, as a kid my parents took us to Filley Pond in Bloomfield, CT, where I grew up, for the annual Easter egg hunt. Colored eggs, chocolate shaped bunnies, jelly beans, Easter bunnies in costume--all very cute and safe in a homogenized way for children of any and all religious backgrounds. But not what Easter is truly about, I think, any more than Christmas is just presents galore and a jolly fat man in a red suit.

The first thing I wanted to do was bring Miguel and Maya to church, to honor Verna and her mother. Almost every Easter that is what we did: attended Mass, usually at Mission San Rafael (where we held Verna's funeral), with Verna's mother while her father waited for us at Starbuck's.

"Miguel," I announced the other day, "we are going to church on Easter."

"But the Heat (Miami's professional basketball team) are on (TV)," he said. He is an uber fan of the Heat.

"Miguel, we are going to church to honor your mother and grandmother," I shot back.

"But, Dad, it's the Heat."

I've got a lot of work to do.

So we went to Church, and it was packed, with people lined up in the lobby and tucked into the small altars on the perimeter of the sanctuary. I had been hoping that Father Paul would be the officiant. I knew him and respected his theological worldview (as I understood it), plus he delivered the Last Rites to Verna as we were huddled around her and several weeks later did her funeral.

But we got Father Dave, the assistant clergy, as he is listed in the Church program. Father Dave sounds exactly like a sincere version of Steve Carrell's character, Michael, on The Office. Father Dave was high energy. Father Dave was perfect for a Jewish guy like me who finds most synagogue and church services interminably boring.

At one point soon after the Mass began, Father Dave exhorted the crowd to repeat after him, "Indeed he has risen," but the response was tepid at best, so he charged forth and basically said, "You can do better than that." God's cheerleading squad has no better representative than Father Dave.

I closed my eyes during the service, not because I was about to nod off, but because I wanted to listen and let Father Dave's words wash over me. I was hoping for some insight into Easter that I could share with Miguel and Maya beyond Christ died for our sins. I just don't think two kids who have had little if any religious instructions will find the words "Christ died for our sins" or "Christ was resurrected to guarantee us all life everlasting" very meaningful right now.

During his sermon or homily, Father Dave said a few things that I quietly and quickly jotted down on the back of a business card. He said, "Easter is the time to be bound up in the rapture of joy." And, "God raised Jesus from the dead for us, in order for us to see the way to lead our lives."

He spent a lot of time talking about God's bountiful love, which certainly resonated with me as I sat in the pew next to Maya and Miguel. I thought about all the love we've been surrounded by since Verna was first diagnosed with cancer in 2006. How our neighborhood, Miguel's school, and my synagogue prepared us meals and delivered them to our home. How Johann Smit, an apple farmer and friend, brought us 10-15 lbs of apples each week and refused payment. How so many friends and family wrapped up Miguel and Maya in play dates and overnights and kept them safe and fed and warm and dry, and happy.

The love that blessed our lives, and continues to do so each and every day, seemed and seems unconditional, a gift, a miracle, a true, true blessing. But is that the core message of Easter? Unconditional love as a manifestation of God or the Divine Spark?

Speaking of love, our dear friends, the Steins, invited us over for Easter lunch. As I sat with John and Liz, each 33 and married for 14 years, with their three girls (one of whom is almost 13 and a friend of Miguel's) bounding in and out of the house, I asked them how they explain Easter to their kids.

"We tell them the story," said John. "We tailor it for each kid."

So Liz and John do get into the Last Supper and Pontius Pilate and how Jesus died and was resurrected. And they are not worried about whether or not the girls understand the Biblical version of those events. They hope that repeated tellings of the story with seep through to them just as water dripping onto a stone eventually makes its mark.

John, Liz, and I also talked about sin, which John (thankfully) defined as "missing the mark," which I found fascinating because that is the definition of the word "sin" in Hebrew.

John and Liz attend a non-denominational Christian church that has grown in popularity in Marin County over the past dozen years. I actually think Liz has larger and Christian plans for me even though I am firmly Jewish and a somewhat shaky agnostic. But they are both loving and kind and funny and fun to be around. So our friendship will deepen even if I don't take a plunge in the same waters that comfort them.

Their youngest daughter has never spoken to me no matter how hard I've tried to coax a simple greeting or a mild high-five from this 3-1/2-year old cutie. But today, as I was discussing Christian theology and the meaning of the Easter story with her parents over macaroni and cheese, marinated asparagus, and Faro salad, she popped out from underneath the kitchen table and uttered her first (and I hope not last) words to me, "Jesus died on the cross."

Quite possibly a minor Easter miracle.

Before Maya bounded out the front door this morning for the 4th annual neighborhood Easter egg hunt, I said to her, "Maya what is Easter about? What did they tell you about Easter in preschool?"

"Candy and Jesus," she answered.

"What about Jesus?" I asked, hoping for an insight from my little princess that would sustain my ability to better communicate the holiday to her and her brother, who'd just helped hide dozens of candy-filled plastic eggs on the two-acre park lawn outside our home.

"Jesus is going to come down and have candy with me," she said.

Yes, I have a lot of work to do. Hallelujah.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Let The Sunshine In State of Being

Flying Over Tennessee:

"I don't want to go to the beach," said Miguel. "There's too much sand."

So we spent three full sun-splashed days an hour north of Miami, with temperatures in the mid-upper 80s and two golf courses and one CVS on every corner, and never reached the shore. Miguel and Maya frolicked in the pool at my brother's hotel one day and at my aunt's pool the next.

The Florida we visited was a combination of traditional Friedman family values meets 21st century ethnic enclaves. We were there first and foremost to spend time with my father and stepmother, who each turn 80 towards the end of this month.

We were also there to help support my father and stepmother as they deal with severe physical and mental limitations. My father has a very bad back and is bent over all the time, and not in the way of Apollo Ohno gliding across the ice. He said this morning, "The pain is there everyday."

My stepmother needs a cane to walk and is experiencing some cognitive decline, so it is impossible for my father to care for both of them. My step-siblings are there now to initiate conversations with them about seeking support from Jewish Family Services.

All I did was remind my father that it was OK to utilize help. "Dad, you can't go it alone. Please listen to Michael and Andrea."

Florida was also seeing different cultures, Haitians, West Indians, African-Americans, that Miguel and Maya have almost no contact with in a California county that is 85% Caucasian.

On Thursday we drove to the Gulf side of the state, to Ft. Myers and Lehigh Acres, to spend time with my aunt (father's sister) and uncle, two of their children (my first cousins), several of the cousins' children, and a few of my aunt's great-grandchildren (and my aunt is only 74 at the most). Outside of my aunt, whose been in California in the past ten years and was at Verna's funeral last September, I haven't seen my Florida family, who grew up 1/2 mile from us, since late 2001.

Soon after we arrived at my cousin Sharon's house, she pulled me aside and shared what was going on in the family. One sister, Elaine, who lives nearby, has been in and out of the hospital for the past few years. She was in there again.

"Steven, it's been so frustrating," Sharon said. "We are all so worried about Elaine."

Sharon and I have a special relationship. We are the same age and always went to the same school. We always sat together on the school bus and reserved a seat for each other. Even after we drifted apart in middle and high school, I never forgot sleeping over at her house, having a wicked crush on her, or all the times we talked on the phone, sent each other postcards over the summer, and spent holidays together at the shore.

Sharon's third child, Brooke, who is almost 16, and Sharon's sister Arlene's youngest son, Alex, who is almost 17, are as close. Sharon said to me, "Brooke asked me, Steven, if Alex is going to move away from me like you did."

"Sharon, you moved to Florida before I left Connecticut," I responded. But I got her point. Sharon's and my lives are not that intertwined, though we talked a lot during Verna's illness, and Brooke fears a future separated from Alex.

Frankly, Alex is pretty special. I don't think Brooke should worry right now. After Verna died last August, Alex decided to organize a relay team for the American Cancer Society's 24-Hour Relay for Life. He named his team Verna's Heroes and he pledged to raise $2500. So far this lithe high school student with size 14 sneakers and sandy blond hair has raised more than $800.

"I told him it's OK if doesn't meet his goal," said Arlene, his proud mother.

Alex had plans Thursday night. He was supposed to hang with some buddies from school, but stayed home to meet me. Once I heard about Verna's Heroes, though, I wanted to meet and hug him.

"Have we ever met before?" he asked me.

"I was there when you were eight days old," I said.

I happened to be in Connecticut for his brit milah (Jewish circumcision ceremony) and the rabbi and mohel (the one who does the circumcision) had recently had throat cancer, so he asked me to chant the prayers while he performed the ritual mutilation. The rabbi's wife chimed in whenever I slowed down to pronounce a word I hadn't seen in a while.

So this amazing kid was also what Florida was about for us: A generosity of spirit in honoring Verna's memory and raising money for cancer research. I made sure to remind Miguel a few times that Alex opted not to spend the evening with friends because he wanted to chill with us.

So we missed the beach and consumed very few citrus fruits, but we did experience what was really important about the Sunshine State.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Manly Men

Miguel asked to shave the other night.

"But Miguel, you don't have any hair on your face," I said.

"So," he said. "I just want to shave."

So I went to the front desk of the hotel we are staying at in Boynton Beach, Florida, and asked them for two complimentary razors (I'd forgotten mine) and shaving cream. Miguel lathered up, though he was disappointed by the generic brand's lack of froth, and started to drag the razor across his cheeks and above his upper lip. When he finished, he rubbed his face and said, "That feels smooth."

He announced in the car last night that he wants a Gillette Fusion.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because it has less tug and pull," he answered.

"Where'd you hear that?" I asked.

"On a TV commercial."

My stepmother chimed in that if he starts shaving now his facial hair will grow in that much faster and darker.

"Is that really true," I wondered, "or just some myth?"

I think I shaved for the first time when I was 14. I'd noticed darker strands of hair amid the virtually invisible peach fuzz, so I grabbed my father's razor, the one with the blade screwed into the middle, and gently removed evidence of my burgeoning adolescence and early manhood.

I was so afraid of my parents' reaction that I never told them. I guess the statute of limitations has long expired should they read this blog entry.

But I did wonder what was behind Miguel's desire to shave and, as he informed me tonight after he mowed away nothing but facial air, continue shaving. Does he identify shaving with becoming a man? Is he growing more aware of his body's changes? What does he actually think becoming a man means?

These questions do not reside solely in the blogosphere or in my mind. Miguel and I are dealing with them as he is perched to jump into young adulthood and is preparing for his bar mitzvah ceremony in August. In the Jewish tradition, one becomes a man when he turns 13. Of course, that Talmudic (Jewish legal) rule grew out of a time when the life span was much shorter.

But in our society, what does becoming a man mean? Miguel isn't old enough to drive a car, drink, or vote, but he has babysat and cooked hot food for his sister. And while he is biologically capable of fathering a child, he has only recently shown any interest in girls at all. So I think grandparenthood is a long way off for me. Whew!

I recently asked several friends--male and female--to share some of their wisdom about what it means to grow up, become a young adult, and accept responsibility. I eagerly await their responses.

I have tried to instill in Miguel the importance of making a difference in the world, always choosing to act right, and knowing when to walk away from trouble or danger. Sometimes I am gentle, other times I am heavy-handed.

While we stood outside a mall today, I saw two young people, around 18, smoking cigarettes. I said to Miguel, "If you ever smoke I will cause you bodily harm."

"Really?" he asked.


"Really?" he asked again, his eyes widening.

"No, but I will ground you for life and make your life miserable."

I also hope he learns about being a man from watching me and not just listening to my rants. I am a decent role model--now that I have abandoned my fanny pack--and sometimes the lessons he sees are the best ones for him to absorb.

But the world can be a crazy place and not everything is easy to control. Some of the music he tries to listen to, for example, contains messages I often abhor. Then again, some of the rock and roll and R&B I boogied to had some questionable lyrics as well.

And I am not even talking about the drinking and partying that so many kids in our county engage in on weekends. Or the stress levels among teens. The suicides and other dangerous behaviors and peer pressure. It is a veritable minefield out there at times for boys and girls. Bullying, drugs, alcohol, unprotected sex.

A man chooses wisely. But Miguel is still in so many ways a boy, whether or not he enjoys the pleasure of a Gillette Fusion gliding across his baby face.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Fashionably Unfashionable

I'm just not a fashionable guy. Until very recently I wore a fanny pack. I still wear argyle socks, though I've been told they are in fashion again. But I never knew they were in or out; I just like them.

Over the past weekend, I was told by family that my jeans were out of date. My blue ones have the thick loop on the left. I guess you call them painter's pants. I looked like an oversized Bob the Builder when I wore them.

Miguel said to me, "Dad, some guy from the 80s called. He wants his jeans back."

My black jeans? My sister-in-law said they look great...if I lived in the 70s. My co-workers, who saw me in them out of work, were convinced they were sweatpants, with a dark sheen.

But the accessory that elicited the most comments and insults was the fanny pack. I'd worn my 'man purse' since the 80s because it was a convenient place to hold my keys, sunglass case, wallet, mesh grocery bags, and change (as in coins).

However, two of my co-workers made it their daily responsibility to chide me and poke fun at me mercilessly in public or private. They'd laugh as soon as I entered the building and point at my fanny pack as if were carrying 8-track tapes, videocassettes, or posters of Milli Vanilli.

The female co-worker went so far to say that she would never even date a guy who wore a fanny pack. In an effort to prove to her that a majority of women I know prefer substance over style, I randomly selected 12 friends and posed the question, Would you date a guy who wore a fanny pack?

I know the sample was unscientific, but I was curious how this dozen would respond. One friend, married, whom I've known for at least 15 years wrote, "Honestly, I have never thought about whether or not a fanny pack diminishes a man's allure or manliness. But if we are talking about superficial first impressions, I look at the shoes, jeans and shirt. There is nothing more eye catching and attractive than a 50-year old man who knows how to dress. My co-worker says women love messenger bags."

Another friend and neighbor, at whose wedding I officiated in 2005, said, "As much as I love people 'being themselves'...I would NEVER date a guy that wore a fanny pack."

And another friend, a single mom of a two-year-old said, "I briefly dated a fanny pack user, hid it, offered to carry it for him, offered bribes, anything to stop him!! And to this day my friends and I laugh about those times. You must say goodbye to the fanny pack!"

Three friends did say it didn't matter. But of the nine who responded, five said, "Ditch the fanny pack."

I may prefer substance over style, but I am sensitive to how others perceive and also see me. So I ditched the fanny pack. And found myself this past weekend with my sister-in-law at Kohl's buying two pairs of jeans that finally rushed me into the 21st century after I'd tossed five pairs of pants, one ancient suit, and three shirts into a bag for Goodwill. Faded blue or stonewashed black jeans are fashionable. Relics from high school and early college are not.

I'd like to say the new apparel is liberating (but I haven't worn either pair of jeans or the new shirt my sister-in-law badgered me into buying), however, I am still in mourning for my fanny pack. Grieving for a small bag that wraps around my waist may not be fashionable, but it is how I am coping for now.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Fast Food Bingo

There's a moment in Fever Pitch, a movie that still makes me tear up, when Jimmy Fallon, who major league obsesses about everything Boston Red Sox, explains to Drew Barrymore, his girlfriend, the power of his passionate commitment to a baseball team.

"Have you ever been committed to anything this long in your life?" he asks her in a tone meant to wound.

That scene popped into my head today as I sat in a McDonald's in Boynton Beach with Miguel and Maya, my brother, my father and stepmother, and 20 other senior citizens, playing Bingo at 9:15 in the morning.

Last night, an hour or so after the kids and I arrived in Florida, I was on the phone with my father, who turns 80 in about two weeks.

"You want to take the kids to play Bingo?" I asked him. "At McDonald's?"

"Sure," he said.

"Dad, if they are going to eat at McDonald's," I said, "It's your treat."

He laughed. "No problem," he said.

I have no problem with Bingo, a game I haven't played since high school, but the thought of mingling with the breakfast crowd at a fast food joint was not how I imagined starting my "vacation" in the Sunshine State. Then, again, we're here to honor my father and stepmother as they begin their ninth decades, so I'll go with the flow.

We arrived at McDonald's moments before show time. There were two handicapped spots, but one car was parked in between both of them.

"Mr. Cotler's taking up two spaces," my father said. He dropped us off and parked around the corner, which isn't easy for him because he uses a walker in public and an electric scooter at home.

Once my father got inside, he brought Maya and me two bingo cards and another two for Miguel. He also dropped off his two at our table while he went in line to order breakfast for the kids. Miguel and Maya each opted for the sausage McMuffin.

So there I was trying to keep track of four bingo cards while Eleanore, the bingo caller and McDonad's greeter, a retired preschool teacher pushing at least 80, treated us to some good old fashioned hospitality and a floor show, and rapidly called out the numbers like an auctioneer on speed.

At one point my father interrupted her. "Eleanore, why was Harry at the doctor's yesterday?"

"You saw Harry (her husband)?" Then she lifted her hand and bent her ring finger. "It's his finger. He hurt it playing softball. He comes into the house, carrying his finger and moving slowly, and gently places it down on the table, and later on his pillow before bed. You'd think he really'd hurt himself."

She was hilarious. When my father introduced us, she said, "I've got a son, too, but he's not good looking like you," which I thought was flattering until I heard her say it again to my brother fifteen minutes later. I think she says that to all the guys, that senior flirt.

If you called out, "Bingo," but were mistaken, she blew a bicycle horn. If you really pissed her off, and she was joking the whole morning, she pulled out a New Year's Eve noisemaker, also known to Jews as a gragger.

For the record, I won four regular games. My rewards? Winners get their McDonald's game cards punched and earn free coffees or sandwiches. I let them punch out my father's card. He won four or five times himself, earning some "evil" stares and musings from Eleanore about our family's monopoly.

The final game of the morning is the cover-all, where you have to cover the entire bingo board, earning yourself five punches on the game card, which holds only five spots. So winning the cover-all effectively guarantees the victor a free drink or sandwich.

I know, I know, the excitement was palpable.

I just knew I was going to win the cover-all, as I did nearly 40 years ago when I last played Bingo. I was in high school and had gone with my paternal grandparents to their weekly bingo session with two or three of my first cousins. As the cover-all game started then, I kept clapping my hands together at the palms and calling out the letter and number I needed.

"O-71," I clapped, and invariably the letter and number I wanted came up until I finally shouted, "Bingo."

My prize then was $50, which my grandmother insisted I split with her because she'd paid the two or three dollars for my bingo cards. In the car ride home, one of my cousins asked me what I was going to do with my winnings. It was late August, so I said, "Buy some school clothes."

My grandmother gave me the $25 back and said, "Here, I was going to give you money for school anyway."

Today I did not chant or clap or invoke my late grandmother's name (she died in 1988), but I just knew I was going to win. And I did. As did an elder two tables away from us, but we both got our five punches, which means my father will probably never have to pay for another meal at McDonald's. And he doesn't even eat there, for he's on a special diet, so he brought along a peanut butter sandwich, crusts trimmed away, and two rice cakes.

My father later told me that he and Joyce have been going to that McDonald's with their same group of friends for at least 15 years. Eleanore has been a caller for eighteen. Not to get too Cheers on anyone, but I could easily see why they keep going. It is a family where everyone does know your name. And Eleanore still feels special and useful, and makes everyone feel special, even before she passes out cookies from the blue tin. And senior citizens, whose bones creak and their minds wander, get to be winners on a bingo board every Wednesday.

Life changes and people die. But this group counts on each other to be there, and most of them have committed themselves to seeing each other every Wednesday morning, rain, shine, or minor aches and pains. At one point, the store manager proudly displayed three photos of her second and newest grandchild. She beamed with pride as everyone gazed at the pictures.

On the way home from dinner tonight, Miguel said, "When are we going to play Bingo again? I liked Eleanore."

"I liked the horns," Maya added.

Bingo at McDonald's crosses the generations and warms the hearts of the ageless.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Somewhere Over the Red Ball

This is cool. I am actually typing this as the kids and I soar to Florida to celebrate my father's and step-mother's 80th birthdays later this month. Technology has a few up sides.

But the human connection is what matters most, which is why I officiate at weddings. My "career" began in 1997, after my then co-worker and friend, Samantha, asked me to perform her wedding ceremony with Evan.

"You seem like you'd be fun," she said, clearly misguided. "And you're Jewish, which will make Evan's parents happy because he's marrying a Catholic girl."

Their wedding was a downright hoot. Evan's father told me before the wedding that he loved Samantha, but that his son could've had any "piece of a** he wanted."

I was, um, shocked.

The ceremony was really an excuse to continue the happy hour that'd begun a few hour earlier. Verna, who was pregnant with Miguel at the time, and I were among the very, very few people who were even sober the entire evening.

During the toasts after the ceremony, Evan's father shared how Evan and Samantha had met in high school. "I'd come into his room late at night," he said, "and he'd be under the cover, moaning..."

Verna and I exchanged glances. Did he just say what we think he did?

But after the ceremony, Evan's mom came over to me and said, "When you recited that blessing in Hebrew, I was in tears."

I didn't do another wedding for a year. I needed time to recover from Evan's father. I was outside the Jewish Community Center when I bumped into Dina, another former teaching colleague. I'd heard she was getting married so I said, "Congratulations."

She mumbled a thank you, almost looking away from me.

"What's the matter?" I asked.

"Well, we don't have anyone to do the ceremony."

"I can do it," I said.


Since 1997 I have officiated at more than two dozen weddings. And every couple is still together. I have officiated for friends, former students, strangers whom I will never see again, and I am doing one in Napa in mid-May with two people who seem ready to adopt me. I have done services in hotels, restaurants, country clubs, and in the living room of my neighbors. I did one right outside my home for a couple, both from Mexico, whom we met at the park. I literally snagged two witnesses from passersby.

I once shared duties with an Episcopal priest. I have done ceremonies that were 15-25 minutes long and, one, that had to be five minutes maximum or the bride, in her own words, would've thrown up from anxiety.

Why would someone who was married 19 years, but lost his wife to cancer, put himself in such emotionally charged situations?

I have no clue.

Seriously, I have always loved weddings. I love how fun they are, how they represent hope, how they are filled with life affirming meaning.

So there I was this past Sunday officiating at the wedding of Tracy, another former education colleague, and Jamie, a gentle and sweet guy. I was struck by how Tracy and Jamie gazed at each during the ceremony, hands clasped, underneath the traditional Jewish wedding canopy, the chuppah.

Tracy said she knew Jamie was her life partner after he'd so courageously helped her through the ordeal of putting her beloved cat to sleep.

I will admit I wasn't much into partying and resisted a friend's attempt to lure me onto the dance floor, but I loved being surrounded by love and tingly excitement. And I wasn't sad at all, just a tiny wistful.

At some point during the reception, someone dropped a red ball into Tracy's lap. I later posed with the red ball and the groom's mother, whom I'd tried unsuccessfully to cajole into dancing with me. What goes around...

But the red ball symbolized what I also love about weddings. It's obviously an in-joke or some detailed or cute story that only the couple and a select few understand. However, whenever Jamie or Tracy talk about the red ball or other slivers of insider details that make them smile, it just heightens their connection. And maybe gives them a few laughs as well as they navigate the calm and turbulent waters of marriage and life.

At one point at Tracy and Jamie's reception, after we'd eaten and after I'd met a couple who are getting married next year on my wedding date ("How cool would it be for me to officiate?" I said to them), I just stood back from the fray of bodies bouncing to Pat Benatar, smiled at everyone and knew it was time to quietly slip away and go home to Maya and Miguel.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

God and The Cancer

"I am grumpy because of what the cancer did to Mommy," declared Maya on the sidewalk next to our car as twilight deepened yesterday. "I miss Mommy and I don't like the cancer."

"I miss her, too," I said. "Cancer is bad and evil."

Last week she asked me why God had made Verna die. I said, "God didn't make Mommy die. She died because she had cancer, and sometimes cancer makes you die."

A week or so before Verna's funeral, I met with Father Paul, the Catholic priest Verna personally asked to officiate at the ceremony. He is active in social justice issues in the community, especially in the Latino neighborhoods. Somehow the issue of death and God and the unfairness of it all came up.

"I hate it when people say 'God wanted her more'," Father Paul admitted as we sat across from one another. "God didn't want her more. She died because she was too sick."

"Yes," I agreed, as I contemplated hugging him, "the cancer won out this time."

Father Paul's theological view of death was comforting to me. See, I don't blame God for Verna's death. I don't even hold God responsible for the Holocaust. If we have real free will then I understand why God has pulled back from the world, though I wouldn't mind a little intervention now and then. Some good old fashioned Biblical fire and brimstone to smote the real, real bad people. Rwanda. Darfur. Just to name two for starters.

Father Paul's words soothed me because I am agnostic, but it was nice to know he and I were on the same cosmological page.

I've been an agnostic since I was 19. I was an undergrad at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. I was in a Sociology of Deviance class and the professor was talking about crime and moral relativism and it suddenly struck me that, maybe, there wasn't any God. I'd never had any proof of God's existence, so why believe in a Deity that is quite possibly fictional?

My mother freaked out when I told her I wasn't sure there was a God.

"Maybe you should talk to someone," she pleaded.

So I made an appointment with Rabbi Neil Gilman, then the dean of the Seminary's rabbinical school, who'd also been my freshman Jewish philosophy professor a year earlier. I confirmed everything with his secretary.

On the day of the appointment, I felt as if were entering a lower realm on the way to Heaven, my insides shaky and roiling. Gilman was a scholar who made me nervous. He knew so much and I basically ignored most of his class for I was a lazy undergrad for the first five years of college.

He ushered me into his office, lined with books and books and books. He asked me why I was there.

"I already told your secretary," I said meekly, looking down at my sneakers.

"I know, I just want to hear it from you," he intoned.

"I don't think I believe in God anymore," I said.

He got up from his black leather swivel chair and extended his hand towards me. "Welcome to the club," he said with a grin.

Over the next few weeks, we read different philosophers and Gilman expounded on his view that belief in God exists on a continuum. At various stages of one's life he or she is on the more believing side; and at other stages he or she believes less.

That made sense to me, but over the years I haven't budged from my proud agnosticism. But I was never ready to take the leap into full blown atheism, because atheism always seemed too absolute. I am a doubter, not a disbeliever.

A few months later I watched a bus filled with members of the local Jewish youth group, including my younger brother (and only sibling), pull away from the synagogue enroute to some weekend retreat. I told my mother as we walked to the car that I prayed to God for Scott to be safe.

She started crying. Joyfully.

But even for all my agnostic bluster, I have had experiences, still, that cause me to wonder about the world. Watching the births of both children was a miracle and a mystery that can't help but stir a sense that the world is guided by something.

In early 2009, I wrote a freelance article about the popularity of Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition that has gained a fair amount of publicity because Madonna is one of its devotees. One rabbi I interviewed said the essence of Kabbalah is recognizing the Divine spark in everyone and treating everyone as if he or she possesses that celestial shard of light.

His words resonated with me, and I have never forgotten them. I have a few close friends and associates (namely a few elderly women at the retirement community where I work), and family members who are either devout or active in their faiths. Deep, non-judgmental faith impresses me. Always has.

I remember watching my late mother-in-law, Maria, a devout Catholic who lived the best of Jesus' teachings, in 1992 as she retraced her Lord's footsteps at a synagogue where he preached 2000 years ago just north of Tiberias, in Israel's Galilee region. Walking on hallowed ground was the pinnacle of her life.

I will admit I have a hard time understanding when a tragedy occurs and someone says, "God spared us" or "God was good to us." How or why does God protect some people and let others die? Did those who suffered not pray enough?

There were some well-meaning people who said that Verna just needed to pray and think positively when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer and later when it returned. But what about all her friends who'd succumbed to the disease before her? Had they not fought or prayed hard enough?

None of this internal struggle means much or will necessarily help me help Maya as she alternates between utter sadness and demonstrable anger over her Mommy's death.

Two of my co-workers, both dedicated Catholics and very sweet people, told me today that I may be an agnostic but I am also very spiritual. I don't feel that way. I feel as if I am just muddling through when it comes to so, so much. And I do desperately want to comfort Maya and Miguel.

Maybe it's time to open my heart. Maybe it's time for some travel on that continuum that Professor Neil Gilman vividly rendered for me more than 30 years ago.

It's my choice. Thank God.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Music Lessons

Music soothes me. For the past few nights, I have been scouring YouTube and watching videos of high energy rock and R and B songs that just make me feel better. I lose myself in the music for at least a while and I can "escape" my problems, my sorrow, my pain and feel eased somewhat without having to resort to crack cocaine.

Music also evokes powerful emotions. Last night I watched the YouTube clip for the millionth time of Susan Boyle singing "I Dreamed a Dream" on Britain's Got Talent, and my eyes brimmed with tears and I felt all was well in the world, which I know is not true, but for five, very brief minutes I could hide behind a facade where goodness, the sheer, innocent goodness of a 47-year old doughty English spinster, triumphs over the evil of haughtiness and ridicule and pervasive pessimism.

Certain songs either transport me to a particular moment in time or recreate a special memory. When I hear Frampton's "Do You Feel Like We Do?", I am back in my bedroom as a teen, shades drawn, as I strummed my tennis racket to Frampton's opus and pretended to be a rock star.

Frampton's "I'm in You", a syrupy melody, was, I think, the unofficial anthem for my high school and early college girlfriend, Cindy, and me. Whenever I hear it, I think of her and of young, young love and how immature I was, but how powerful our relationship felt back then.

Don Henley's "Boys of Summer", which I literally could not listen to for a few years, reminds of a heart-searing breakup with a girlfriend, Amy, when I was in my mid-20s. It just hurt to hear Henley crooning, "You can never turn back."

Robert Palmer's "Bad Case of Loving You" holds a special place in my heart. Upon the recommendation of our labor coach, I sang a less than rock and roll version of it to Miguel every night for 3 months while he grew inside Verna.

"Hot summer nights/Felt like a net/I gotta find my baby yet."

Music also energizes me. I have over 1700 songs on my iPod in the rock and roll folder, and I listen to them in alphabetical order when I either run or ride the Life Cycle everyday. Certain songs make me want to tap my feet, sway to the music, or pump my body even faster. Anything by Bryan Adams, Donnie Iris, the Michael Stanley Band, the Beatles, Van Halen, and countless others are guaranteed to increase my energy.

Music can also teach or provide an opportunity for learning. The first thing Miguel does when I turn the car on after I pick him up at school is switch the radio station, usually on a jazz station, to some hip/hop, funk, rap outlet he's favoring.

Today he was listening to a song by Rihanna, a talented singer who gained further notoriety after her ex-boyfriend, Chris Brown, assaulted her physically. Her song today was about S and M.

"Miguel, do you know what S and M is?" I asked as the song blared.

"No." His friend, Adam, an 8th grader, sat in the backseat.

"S and M is where people have sex and cause others or themselves pain and violence," I explained. "S and M is where something enjoyable is turned into something painful and violent."

I didn't see the need to launch into anything more about sex, sacred acts between consenting adults or intense physical intimacy and enjoyment, than those two sentences.

"Well," he said, "thanks for the information."

"Miguel, you know what I'm saying. Some songs just say things that are really against my and Mommy's values."

At this point, he may have been ready to jump out the car window, splatter himself on the highway and avoid further embarrassment in front of Adam.

Yesterday he argued with me when I said any and all of the songs the DJ will play at his bar mitzvah reception in August (the 13th) will have to be sanitized.

"Why can't the DJ just use the beeper when a bad word comes on?"

"Because," was all I said.

Sometimes one word or word note or one verse is all it takes, not that he was any happier.

"Mommy's all right/Daddy's all right/They just seem a little weird..."

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Edge of Living

I've changed names to safeguard the privacy of residents and their families at the retirement community where I work.

Ellen came home to die. Following major coronary surgery and several weeks at a respite care center, she said simply, "I am tired of all this. I'm in pain. I don't want to be a burden anymore."

I visited Ellen yesterday to deliver her a case of Ensure I no longer needed. I peered into her room and saw mottled skin stretched taut against her face. Her gray hair was brushed back atop her head. Blue veins snaked down from the back of her hands past her bony wrists and forearms.

"I brought you a present," I shouted.

"You did?" said Ellen, who is in her late 80s.

I walked into her bedroom, with eight crosses affixed on the wall above the light switch, a rosary dangling from the portable table in front of her.


She lifted her hands at me, palms up, and her eyes widened. She smiled brightly. "I'm glad you're here," she said.

"I dropped off some Ensure," I told her. "I don't need it anymore."

I gulped and held back the tears. I am not going to lose it in front of a dying woman, I thought. Ellen started mumbling about a girl who worked for her and needed to get home. Then she explained the large Impressionist painting of three girls in their Sunday best white dresses, bows in their hair, on the wall next to the crosses.

"The girl there," she said, pointing to a figure in the center of the canvas, "was a neighbor of ours, lived behind us. Her mother was the artist."

"Are you using your rosary?" I ask. "It takes a Jewish guy to make sure you are praying, Ellen."

She smiled again. "Well, yes, that is something you would do." She brought up the worker again and I just nodded. She raised her bony fingers towards me, as if she was about to make a critical point, and we clasped hands. Her fingers were warm, her life force still flowing.

Ten minutes later I visited Fay, who is also on hospice and in her late 90s. Thin oxygen tubes snaked in a V from her nose to her chest. Her eyes drooped and the skin underneath her chin wiggled.

"Hi, hon," she said as I poked my head into her room.

"Fay, you're looking good. Nice to have you back." She'd spent a night in the hospital last week after she'd had difficulty breathing.

"Thank you, hon," she said. I explained to Fay and her two children, Janet and Bob, that they she should not hesitate to order trays and let us know how we can best accommodate their needs. I reminded them that all tray services or guest meals are complimentary while a resident is on hospice.

Janet asked me, "Can I come down at 5:45 after Mom has eaten and get some food?" Dinner closes each night at 6.

"Just tell the hostess I said it was OK," I answered.

I'd first met Fay at Casino Night about a month after I started working here in late 2009. She'd been depressed about her failing body, cancer, and weekly blood treatments, but she'd dragged herself to the evening's festivities. She later told me that my associates and I helped peel away her curtain of despair. "You helped save me that night," she said.

I grabbed her hand just before I left and said we would do whatever she needed. Her eyes darted as if she were preoccupied, but I sensed she wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.

As I left her room and breathed in the stillness of the hallway, my mind focused on hospice, transporting me back to last June, when Verna's oncologist firmly suggested we contact hospice so Verna could have access to 24-hour almost on-the-spot care. The conversation, the images, and the words still imprinted on my brain, when they told us we were looking at two or three more months.

"But," the oncologist said, "I'd love for you to prove me wrong.

Verna died almost three months after her oncologist's final diagnosis and recommendations.

Ellen and Fay are at the beginning of the process, before the round-the-clock administration of pain-killers, conversations about feeding tubes, hushed words about increasing the doses of morphine or Ativan or some other narcotic. I ache for their families, for the decisions they will soon confront or mull over.

I feel sad for them and it reminds me of the anguish I endured last summer. But, on another level, I felt slightly blissful after I left Fay's apartment. Not because I may have eased their suffering (it may beyond anyone's control now), but maybe because I felt how strongly their spirits pulsed as each braved life amid what could possibly be an imminent death. Both women seemed so present, even if Ellen's mind was foggy. And they pulled me into that Zen-state and reminded me yet again that I have a role to play here: caregiver. Or I could just listen to them talk or ramble as they prepare for another journey on the edge of living.