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.