Saturday, April 30, 2011

I practiced sheepskin yoga

Never Done: I did sheepskin yoga

My friends David and Pamela raise sheep. Not just sheep, but they have a farm with chickens, peacocks, and wonderful mutt named Tetley. They used to have the best donkey in the world, named Norman, but he died from injuries inflicted by a breeding ram. Over the years I've grown to know and love these animals -- which I had plenty of opportunity to do because they live just 1/4 mile down the road where I grew up, and where my parents lived out their days.

Last year I got to help castrate and dock and ear tag the lambs, and then this year I wish I hadn't already done that so I could do it for the first time and write about it. This year they decided not to breed their sheep, but they had a couple miraculous conceptions anyway, which means that we didn't do a great job castrating the lambs last year. It was, by the way, elastration, not castration, and my job was to hold the lambs while David did the hard part. What a fake-out for the lambs. I picked them up, and I rubbed between their ears, and I treated them real nice, and then David snapped a rubber band around their tail, or their balls, and then once they were used to that, he tagged their ears. Each of them reacted similarly -- I put them down and they were stunned, and staggered around for about 30 seconds to a minute, and then they found their mother and started to suckle. All except the two little orphans, who were bottle fed for a couple weeks until they could eat enough grass and other food to keep themselves healthy and nourished.

I'm going into all this detail to explain that I had a relationship with these lambs, as well as with their moms. And so when I went to visit David and Pam and some sheepskins arrived from the tanner, they weren't just any old sheepskins, they were the sheepskins of sheep I had known. I've been saying for years that I want to buy a sheepskin. My dad had a little one next to his bed, which he stood on when he woke up in the morning. When these arrived, and I happened to be staying at their house for the weekend, I realized it was the chance I'd been waiting for. I chose the biggest, softest sheepskin -- so big that I can lie down on it, just a little curled up, and fit entirely. It turns out that it's not creepy to be enveloped in the wool of a sheep I once knew; instead it feels connected and comforting.

I brought it home to New York, and I put it near my bed, like my dad did. But when I woke up, I didn't just want to stand on it -- I wanted to lie down on it again, and feel connected to the sheep. I did that for a couple days, and then very naturally I started to stretch, and before I knew it I was doing cat cow, and before I knew it even more, I had invented sheepskin yoga. Well, maybe I didn't invent it. Unless we don't define invention in terms of who was the first, but instead in terms of did we innovate it ourselves. I mean, it's not like I'm saying it didn't exist in the world before I came up with it -- just that it didn't exist in my world before I came up with it. Whatever. It's wonderful. There is nothing like child's pose with your nose sticking into soft sheepswool, rather than sticking into a smelly yoga mat. And what better way to stay connected to other beings -- which I think is an essential part of yoga -- than to be enveloped by one. Namaste. (The spirit in me respects the spirit in you.)

Friday, April 29, 2011

Lady Brother

Never Done: I started to Sandy Pope's campaign video for General President of the Teamsters Union

I've worked on and off with Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) for 10 years now, starting when I got to do creative organizing with them at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters convention in Vegas in 2001. TDU is the the rank and file reform movement within the Teamsters, made up of truck drivers, flight attendants, dock workers, warehouse workers, clerical workers -- every kind of Teamster -- who want to build a more powerful union.

What does this really mean? It means that these are the people working to save pensions, health insurance, and stop production harassment (harassing workers to work so fast that it becomes unsafe and untenable) -- through grassroots organizing, membership education, and by electing reformers into local and national leadership positions. Reformer Ron Carey served as President of the IBT from 1991 to 1997 -- the first Teamster General President to be elected by general membership. Reformer Tom Leedham ran three times for General President, coming very close to defeating Jimmy Hoffa Jr. more than once. And now, for the first time ever, a woman is running for Teamster General President: Sandy Pope. And Brett Blake and I are making her campaign video.

I am often struck by the mundanity of the tasks of even the most exciting projects. I'm making the campaign video for the first woman to ever run for General President of one of the most powerful unions in our country! And what does that entail? Waking up at 4:30 AM, putting tea in a thermos, printing up Google directions, making sure I have all my sound equipment and enough batteries, packing rain gear, shlepping equipment to the car, picking up a young camerawoman, driving to Long Island, stopping at Dunkin Donuts to pee, and eventually arriving at a huge parking lot of a UPS facility, where there is a inflatable rat squeezing the neck of a UPS worker. One of the men I interviewed said something to me like, "I don't have much to say. I'm just a common man." And I, shivering and sleepy, just said, "Aren't we all?" Because really, what's the difference between one person and another? We all, as they say, put our pants on one leg at a time.

We were all there because Sandy was stumping at a rally for Workers Memorial Day -- and it was our chance to film her speaking to a crowd of supporters. She's good. She used to be a truck driver and now she is the President of her local, so she knows what she's talking about. The Teamsters are a mixed bunch -- some of them the most thoughtful, brave, tough, and brilliant people I've ever known, and some of them more, well, let's just say, tough. It's extremely moving to see these guys -- and they are mostly, but not exclusively guys -- come out to support a woman to take the highest leadership in their union. And I am honored to be hired to help her.

The post should really end there, except that I have too many Teamsters stories to resist telling at least one. When I was at the IBT convention in 2001, a man (sorry, I forget who) addressed the crowd in the casino hall. He looked out at the room and started, "Brothers." Then, knowing that wasn't quite right, he looked around the room again before adding, "And ... lady brothers."

Oh how I wish I had the funding to make a documentary about Sandy's campaign. I would, of course, call it Lady Brother.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

I saw The Loving Story at Tribeca Film Festival

Never Done: I saw The Loving Story at Tribeca Film Festival

In 1958, a white man and an African-American/Cherokee woman married in Virginia. They adored each other. For the next 9 years, Richard and Mildred Loving (real name) faced arrests (policemen arresting the Lovings in their own bed at 4 AM) and jail sentences and exile from the state of Virginia, and their own families -- and eventually, a law suit that went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States in 1967, and overturned anti-miscegenation laws across the country.

The Loving Story is a new documentary film that tells their story, using wonderful archival footage, so we get a real sense of Richard and Mildred, and the intimacy of their relationship, and their role in changing United States history. Neither of them were activists. Neither of them set out to change the world -- they were just very, very much in love, and asked the ACLU for help when their basic civil rights were denied.

In fact, when their case went all the way to the Supreme Court, they decided not even to go. When their lawyers asked Richard if there was anything he wanted the court to know, he said, "Tell them I love my wife." I found this to be an extremely moving reason to take a case to the Supreme Court. He was not out for attention, and he was not going after any kind of political agenda. He wanted the right to be married to the woman he loved. I think the reason that moment with Richard is so strong is because he barely says anything the whole film, while Mildred, the more outgoing and talkative of the two, expresses herself gorgeously throughout. In the end, this film is as much about their fight to live where they want to live as it is a fight about living with whom they want, and Mildred is wonderful at letting us see and hear her longing for her home and family.

In the unanimous decision in Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court wrote:

Marriage is one of the "basic civil rights of man," fundamental to our very existence and survival.... To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discrimination. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.

Don't you just wish you could take that language and replace the words racial discrimination with discrimination based on sexual orientation or immigration status? Don't you just wish that people understood that we could skip the next years of fighting and just skip to the inevitable conclusion -- that it is a civil right for EVERYONE to marry?

I know that lots of my friends don't feel that marriage is the key issue for the LGBTQ community, and I know that many others do. I personally don't think it has to be the key issue to be a vital and strategic one, and I have such huge respect for Evan Wolfson, the founder of Freedom to Marry, that I urge you, no matter where you stand on the issue, to practice humility, and to listen to how he frames the issue. And then try to see The Loving Story when it comes to your city. And then the next time you see me, let's talk about it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

I attended the Park Slope Food Coop general meeting

Never Done: I attended the Park Slope Food Coop general meeting

The Park Slope Food Coop has 16,000 members, and each of us does a monthly work shift that lasts 2 hours and 45 minutes -- unless you do a maintenance shift (2 hours) or a really early morning receiving shift (2 1/2 hours.)

16,000 members. When I was growing up my entire hometown had 2000 people in it. Now it has 6000. My hometown was governed by open Town Meeting -- a form of democratic rule in which most or all members of the community (residents of the town) come together to legislate policy and budget for the local government. I used to love to go to Town Meeting with my parents and watch the Town Moderator (first Mario Barba and then Dick Cronin) keep the meeting civil, respectful, and somewhat efficient. As a little kid, I think I loved it most when that townsperson that everyone has -- the one who has an issue that they are going to bring up no matter what the actual agenda is -- the one who gnaws at that issue like a dog gnaws its bone, no matter what verbal and non-verbal clues they get from the Moderator and an entire auditorium full of people -- I loved it most when that person got up to talk.

People would shift in their seats. The people in the back would get up for water or a bathroom break. My mother, who would be covering Town Meeting for the Harvard Post (town newspaper at the time), would lean over to explain to me who this person was and what they really were on about, while discreetly (?) rolling her eyes to her friends nearby. I loved it. Drama! Conflict! Inappropriate public behavior! But in a context of community that transcended the conflict. A sense of community that says, "they might be the town fool, but they're OUR town fool."

I don't lack conflict and inappropriate public behavior in Brooklyn, but I do lack it in a small-town way, so imagine my delight when early in the proceedings in the ornately wallpapered room at Congregation Beth Elohim, two candidates for Coop Board of Directors spoke to us, and one of them was one of those people. Here he was, running for a seat on the Board, and all he wanted to talk about was how the Coop is a sham of a democracy. I felt the shift happen -- people got it that he was a little nuts, but nobody heckled and everyone listened while he spoke. One person even got up and asked him a question -- Could you give us specific examples of ways the Coop is not a democracy? -- and his answer was that the Coop's entire history is a specific example. And still, if people thought he was a little Looney Tunes, they didn't show it publicly.

I myself split my time between paying close attention to the general meeting, working on a writing project, and gabbing (until the woman in front of us asked us to stop whispering) with Tony Fanning, the boutique realtor who found us the apartment we're living in. I was most interested in a heated conversation about Membership Point of Sale Integration, which (and I quote here from a yellow flyer) will enable a person's member status in the Membership System to "talk" with the POS system, prohibiting members who are suspended with expired grace periods from purchasing groceries or making member payments.

The deal is, you have to work in order to shop. If you miss a work slot you have to do a make-up before your next regularly scheduled work shift. If you fail to do that, you might get two make-up shifts. People fall epically behind in their work shifts, and end up suspended from shopping (but still able to work themselves out of the hole.) But the thing is, people get around this all the time. They're supposed to be stopped at the entrance, but it's easy to get into the Coop some other ways. The way things are now, if you're suspended, the computer will still allow you to purchase food if you can convince a check-out worker to sell it to you. The new system would not allow the checkout worker to override the system.

Reactions were strong. We can't allow technology to override humanity at the Coop. It is unfair to would a person to come in and shop and get all the way to the checkout before being told they cannot. The onus is misplaced -- checkout workers, ill-equipped to deal with angry, frustrated, confused people, and facing lines of people waiting to check out, shouldn't have to deal with this. There are thousands of Coop members who do the right thing, so why shouldn't we get a system that deals with the ones who don't? In essence -- this was an ethical debate about privacy, technology, humanity and responsibility, with the membership overwhelmingly opposed to the new policy. I found myself somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, for a Coop with 16,000 members to function, we actually do all need to do our work shift, and I go to great lengths to do mine. (For years I commuted from Hoboken to do my Coop shift.) On the other hand, I don't think a mechanized solution is necessarily better than a human one, except where it might be. Could a mechanized system remove bias from the process? If you are suspended, you are suspended -- no matter your race, charm, or hotness. And it's not like the Coop has been immune from charges of racial bias.

But I didn't make my opinions known. Instead I sat in the back and listened, and read over the minutes from the last board meeting. Minutes that started with the wonderful summary: "A member raised a question concerning how price fluctuation affected the Coop and a question about kelp." The Coop might be the town fool, but it's MY town fool.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

I forgot to be decisive

Never Done: I let an entire week go by without realizing I was supposed to be practicing the mide (middah) of Decisiveness: When you have made a decision, act without hesitation

I know this is a little bit outside the practice of DOING something new every day, and it's more a recognition that I didn't do something I had set out to do, but I find that one of the things lacking in my Never Done practice is personal accountability for the things I don't do, because I'm always writing about all the things I do do. And to be honest, there are many things I should/could be doing that I am not, because of all the things I am.

In particular, training for the triathlon has been a game changer. It takes a good two hours a day, between the swimming, the running, the biking, the stretching, the showers, the getting of the bike, the laundry, the commute (to the pools) and more of the stretching. I love how much stronger I am getting, and I love that I am training with such diligence, but I do not love that it is now much harder to find time to do something new every day, to see friends, to apply for jobs, to be spontaneously unscheduled, and apparently, to remember that I was supposed to be working on decisiveness.

The thing I love about the way that Mussar frames decisiveness is that it doesn't kick your ass for having a hard time making a decision; it just kicks your ass for dragging your heels and implementing the decisions you worked hard to make. I find this to be profound, and think it honors the different kinds of decision making models -- recognizing that some decisions take a long time time, and some are made in a flash, but if not implemented, all of them lose their meaning.

So as we move on to this coming week's mide of Cleanliness: Let no stain or ugliness on our self/space, I will also practice decisiveness, and work toward the swift implementation of my hard-earned decisions.

Monday, April 25, 2011

I was one of those cyclists

Never Done: I was one of those cyclists
Tshuve: I had the first wintergreen chip ice cream of the season at Erikson's

When I was growing up, I rode my bike everywhere, over miles and miles of hilly country roads, through orchards and past fields. I rode to school, I rode to friends' houses, I rode to work in neighboring towns. I think I'd say there was a bike riding culture in my town, but not a cycling culture. We rode in shorts and sandals or sneakers, and we didn't wear helmets. We didn't have toe clips, or shirts with pockets on the back. Nobody came to Harvard to train. We just rode bikes.

I was up in Harvard over the weekend (wonderful! wonderful!) and fit in two of my three training sessions. I took a wonderful run (3.7 miles, 40 minutes) the evening I arrived; I napped on the couch by the fire instead of going swimming on Saturday; and on Sunday I got geared up and went for my first ever training ride over the Harvard hills. I did my best to ignore the mental image of my mother rolling her eyes at me for my cycling shorts and gloves, as I set out on my little folding bike for a training ride. First of all, it was just wonderful to ride those roads again. I had sense memories of riding the three miles school (which used to take me 12 minutes, with a three-speed and a backpack; 30 years later, it took me 20 minutes, with a 7-speed with little wheels. I'm not sure what the comp is here, but it's likely that the only useful lesson is not to compare my 48-year-old self with my 18-year-old self.) At the beginning I thought about giving up and waiting til I have a good bike with normal-sized wheels. But I stuck with it, and I gave over to the limitations of my bike, and I ended up riding for 45 minutes, from one side of town to the other, from one dear friend's house to another's, from one Easter celebration to another, past many other cyclists and no other bike riders, riding the liminal space between two worlds -- my old town and the town it has become, still filled with people (and orchards and fields) I love.

And then later, on the way out of town, Josh and I stopped at Erikson's for the first ice cream of the year.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

I had a bike fitting and (later) sucked helium

Never Done: I got an official bike fitting
Never Done: I sucked helium

My friend Kara is trying really really hard to lend me her Bianchi Eros for the triathlon. She measured her bike, she got her husband to measure her bike, she brought her bike to a bike store to get it measured again, and still we weren't sure if the bike would be the right size for me. (The bike is in Oregon, and I am not.)

I've been needing to get a real bike fitting to see if it would fit me, but I've been striking out in New York. I asked one bike shop, and they just eyeballed me and said I should ride a 46 cm frame. I wrote to the bike guy with Team in Training, and asked if I could pay him to give me a fitting, and he never wrote back. I asked another guy in another bike store if I could pay him to do a fitting, and he told me to go online and do my own, so Josh and I did it, and it came out ridiculously wrong -- even I could tell that I was not supposed to be on a 51 cm frame. (That's too big for little old 5 foot 3 me.) So when I came up to Massachusetts, I took the opportunity to go to Pedal Power -- a bike store that's been around for 30 years, and really prides itself on customer service.

I told him my situation -- that Kara has a bike she is completely willing to lend me, but that it's in Oregon and I am here, and we need to measure me to get our best possible sense if it will be a good fit. I told him that I love to ride, but that no matter how interested he is in gear, that I am not, and that after the tri, I'll go back to riding an upright bike. And then for good measure, I reminded him again that I am not a gear head.

We looked up Kara's bike online, and he immediately told me everything he hates about it. He hates the 650 wheels, he hates something about the shifters. He hates that it has a threaded something, and he hates some other things. I reminded him that I am not interested in the gear, and that this is a bike that I can get into for about $250, whereas it would cost me at least $1300 to get a bike any other way, and all we are looking to see is if we can get me comfortably fit on this bike, and if not, then what bike would work.

My mini lecture could have backfired, but instead it brought him right over to my side, and he took me to his fitting wall and started to measure me with a cool laser measure system that then fed into a computer program that then calculated not just the height of the bike, but also the length, which turned out to be the much more significant number for me. Turns out I have especially long legs for my height, and an especially short torso. I mean, I knew that already from how I look in high-wasted pants, but I didn't know what the ramifications were in the world of bike fittings. He set up a bike to my dimensions, and it was still three inches too long for me. He put a new stem on a Trek 47, and he got it to the point where I was fairly comfortable, and where I had a paper with the essential numbers on it.

All the while, I just kept thinking to myself, "This is so different from New York." Here was this guy who knew I was not going to buy a bike from him, who took over an hour with me, in order to help me borrow someone else's bike. It's also true that I told him I was honest with him from the start, and that I wanted to pay him for the fitting. But it's also true that I had done the same in New York, and look how far that got me. There's just more time and space in New England, and also I think that businesses need to function in a way that will keep customers over generations, so they have more incentive to work with people outside of the hard-sell mindset. Either that, or this is all just my own justification for how much I love my New England home.

I did a couple other things I'd never done as well, along with a lot of tshuve, return. Josh and I are staying with our dear friends and my old neighbors, the Durrants, where we cooked together, and herded sheep into their pens, and I was going to be here while one was shorn, but went to the bike fitting instead. Last year I helped David dock and castrate the lambs (apparently not to 100% effectiveness, because they had a couple miraculous conceptions.) In the afternoon, while I fell asleep on the couch with Pamela, something neither of us does often, and we'd never done together.

The actual reason I came up here was for my old friend Emily's 40th birthday party. Emily is the youngest sibling in the family that lived across the street from me while I was growing up. She was born with cerebral palsy, and she got brain damage when she was still a baby, from a series of seizures. Her three older siblings and her mom decided to throw her a party, and I really wanted to come to it, to see her and the whole family. This post is getting long, so I am just going to choose one element of the party to write about. There was a helium tank for balloons, and the kids were blowing them up and sucking the helium and talking funny. When I was little, I was extremely willful, and used to say "I know" a lot. Once when I was four, I got into a match of wills with my father, who was frustrated that I said "I know" when he suspected (or knew) I didn't. When he got frustrated, he said to me, "If you're so smart, what's the atomic weight of helium?" I looked him in the eye, and said, "I know; I just don't want to tell you." He tried to cajole me and get me to admit I didn't know, but I held out, apparently for days. Finally he gave in, and he said to me, "The atomic weight of helium is four." To which I replied, of course, "I know." He never let me forget this story, and I always knew the atomic weight of helium. I guess I've come a long way in learning Humility: Seek wisdom from others.

But I had never sucked it before, because I tend to be a little freaked out by putting noble gasses (or other chemicals) in my body. So when Peter looked me in the eye and told me it was my turn, I knew I couldn't duck it any longer. I sucked in the helium, slowly like he told me, and when I had inhaled it all, I recited the Shehekhianu, high on helium. Omeyn.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

I'm the one who does the hard thing

Never Done: I changed the labels in the weighing labeling machine

Full disclosure: this post is an unexpected appetizer to the Park Slope Food Coop post which will come on Wednesday, because Tuesday night I am going to go to my first ever General Meeting. I'll explain then what it means to go to General Meeting but today I want to write about why I'm the person everyone assumes will do the hard thing, whatever the hard thing is. I love my Food Coop shift. I work in Food Processing, which means I pack nuts and seeds and dried fruit and candy into little bags, weigh it and label it, and put it on the shelves. Sometimes I cut and wrap cheese, and sometimes herbs and spices and tea. I have never done the olives. Ooops. That's means now I have to.

We have new weighing/labeling machines. Well, not so new, but new within the last year or so. New enough so that I have never been there when the labels ran out. Like they did when someone was packing mango slices. Apparently nobody else had been there when it had happened either, because nobody moved to replace the labels, but instead looked to me, as if I would (of course) be the one to figure out how to execute this maneuver. And the thing is, I did it. I looked around, I found the labels, I opened up the area where the empty spools were, I studied how the spent label sheets sat in their carriage. You get the picture. I basically figured it out, and I made it work.

I am proud that I am a person who knows how to figure things out and get things done. I think it takes about 99% persistence and 96% confidence, and only about 64% actual physical know-how. But I think confidence grows with know-how, and so maybe the correlation among these qualities is relative, and the percentages shift as each of them increases. In my case, I think I have always had a pretty high level of confidence, but maybe not persistence or know-how. But I was always a physically-oriented person -- coordinated and active, so I had an innate physical know-how, even if I didn't have specific mechanical skills. And then I became a carpenter. Every day I had to figure out how to do things I had never done before, and every day I started out thinking it (whatever it was) was impossible, and every day I came home having accomplished it.

I learned two priceless lessons in my carpenter years. One: step by step. Just like Anne Lamott writes in her wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird, I learned that the only way anything gets accomplished is by doing it step by step. Whether you already know how to accomplish each step or not, you still need to go step by step. As a carpenter, if you have to build a book shelf, you look, you think, you draw, you plan, you measure, you shop, you measure again, you draw some more, you cut, you nail or glue and clamp, you sand, you stain. It's really not nearly as intimidating when you think about step by step, rather than thinking I have to make a bookshelf. Lesson number two: Ask people who know how to do it. (Humility: Seek wisdom from others.) I spent way too much time pretending I knew more than I did because I thought people would respect me less if they knew what I didn't know. But it turned out that as soon as I started asking seasoned carpenters for advice, they started to respect me more. And I learned all sorts of good ways to do things, and I became more seasoned.

And, of course, as I became more seasoned, I became more persistent and more confident, and now I am a person who will take apart the label machine and figure out how to replace the labels, so the People's Republic of the Park Slope can eat its dried mango slices.

Friday, April 22, 2011

To My Fifties

Never done: Shadow post

Every now and then I do something that is too private to write about publicly. This is one of those times. But rest assured I am writing about it privately, and will fit it into the big picture at the end of the year. Speaking of the year, I'm 60% through, which is kind of like being in the middle age of my project. I just read a beautiful poem by Kenneth Koch (from Knopf Poem-A-Day) from the perspective of a man who has just left his Fifties, and entered his Sixties. I found it incredibly helpful to look forward into my Fifties from his perspective looking back. I'd like to share it with you.

To My Fifties

I should say something to you
Now that you have departed over the mountains
Leaving me to my sixties and seventies, not hopeful of your return,
O you, who seemed to mark the end of life, who ever would have thought that you would burn
With such sexual fires as you did? I wound up in you
Some work I had started long before. You were
A time for completion and for destruction. My
Marriage had ended. In you I sensed trying to find
A way out of you actually that wasn't toward non-existence.
I thought, "All over." You cried, "I'm here!" You were like traveling
In this sense, but on one's own
With no tour guide or even the train schedule.
As a "Prime of Life" I missed you. You seemed an incompletion made up of completions
Unacquainted with each other. How could this be happening? I thought. Or
What should it mean, exactly, that I am fifty-seven? I wanted to be always feeling desire.
Now you're a young age to me. And, in you, as at every other time
I thought that one year would last forever.
"I did the best possible. I lasted my full ten years. Now I'm responsible
For someone else's decade and haven't time to talk to you, which is a shame
Since I can never come back." My Fifties! Answer me one question!
Were you the culmination or a phase? "Neither and both." Explain! "No time. Farewell!"

Thursday, April 21, 2011

I got the TSA pat down

Never Done: I got the TSA pat down

Well, sort of. It was done by German security people in Germany, but flying to JFK on Delta -- so I am not sure under whose authority it happened, but I did get patted down for the first time. This is the third time I flew this year (Oregon and Florida) and all those times I was going to choose the pat down so I wouldn't be irradiated by the scanner (or exposed to strangers in a room) and I figured I would blog about it, but so far I haven't even encountered the scanner at all.

Kathleen and I couldn't figure out why the line to even get into the security area was so slow, and it turned out that the line was just for people on our flight, and that there was just one metal detector and one baggage scanner. And, that every single person who went through the line were being patted down, and that random people were being pulled out of the line and taken into a special room to have their electronics swabbed for explosives.

So. When we finally got to the line, Kathleen went first, and I watched her get patted down, and I saw her chatting with the agent, and I saw that she had to un-do her belt, but mostly I looked carefully to see if I thought it would be at all emotionally uncomfortable to get patted down. I didn't think it would -- I thought it would be like going to the doctor, only quicker and fully clothed. The thing that was actually uncomfortable was that I had to send my passport through the baggage scanner, while they made me wait quite a while to go through the metal detector, and so I was separated from my passport (and computer) for about 5 minutes. And then they called me, and I went through, and the blond agent asked me to put out my arms for a pat-down. I decided to practice Mussar, and to consider what is her burden. What's her job like to touch people all over, all day long? Is it actually uncomfortable for her? How could I put us both at ease? And in fact, this was a great technique, and the whole thing went very smoothly, and I could even notice that it felt kind of good, like a little massage before a long flight.

This shift in consciousness reminded me of a time when I was a teenager and I was lying on a rock by the ocean, soaking in the summer sun. But there were these little flies that kept landing on me and annoying me. So annoying, these little flies. So annoying. It was a perfect sunny day by the ocean, if it wasn't for these flies. And then I noticed. Those little flies didn't actually feel bad on my skin. They weren't biting, they didn't hurt, or itch, or anything. In fact, they felt kind of good, like little light brushed tickles on my arms and legs. It was a total consciousness shift -- and it has lasted now over 30 years.

So there you go -- just another of the perks of a Mussar mindset and modern international travel -- free massages before your flights.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I signed a petition to save Kunsthaus Tacheles

Never Done: I signed a petition to save Kunsthaus Tacheles

I don't know how to describe the Kunsthaus Tacheles (Tacheles art house) except to say to imagine the most substantial five-story stone building that takes up a city block, and then fill it with international artists, punks, and hippies. Name it for a Yiddish word that means basically straight talk about real things, like economics and world events. Spray paint every available surface, and build out galleries and studios on every floor -- some ceramic studios, some theater studios, some painting studios, some jewelry. Some doors open; some doors closed. Some with signs welcoming visitors; others with signs telling people not to take any fucking photos. Make one whole floor a marketplace, piss in the corners from time to time so the smell will linger. Curate performance art and music and all sorts of performance in the massive space. Give the entire top floor of one wing to an amazing Belarusian painter to paint huge intricate work in response to Chernobyl. Outside, some people could live in some trailers and make a sculpture garden with a little café, and there could be some old couches scattered around for punks and tourists to hang out on and woo each other. The whole thing should feel like it was squatted originally, and now it should feel like it's a massive radical art space that should never, ever, ever, ever be displaced.

But guess what? It's on a block with very fancy real estate across the street. Restaurants, event spaces. And some developers are chomping at the bit to get their hands on it. Walking through the massive space, I cried thinking about the priorities of the people who would ever want to dismantle such a vital space. It's not that I can't imagine that the space and the artists have their -- shall we call them issues? Any place that smells like piss probably has its issues. But any place that is covered head to toe and wall to wall and floor to ceiling with art is also a space committed to hope and beauty and revolution -- and WHY CAN'T PEOPLE JUST LEAVE IT THE FUCK ALONE? Better yet, why can't they support it? A lot of people are. It says so all over the walls and floors and ceilings. And on the top floor, in the Belarusian's studio, there were petitions in 9 languages, asking people to voice their support for Tacheles. I signed the one in English, wrote down that I live in Brooklyn, NY.

A small thing to do, and yet something to do. Without even knowing much of its history until I got online later to research it, I walked through the nooks and crannies of this space in tears. Tears of hope and appreciation for the artists who created it and keep it going, and tears of anger at the thought that it might come undone.

I support Tacheles.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

I drank a beer on the S-Bahn and prepared a seder in under two hours

Never Done: Drank beer on public transportation
Never Done: Prepared a seder in under two hours

I think I would be missing a huge opportunity if I did not write about my experience of otherness while in Berlin -- especially from the perspective of my being a Jew. As I've written before, one of the key elements of Mussar practice is to explore the burden of others when evaluating our own ethical actions. I find it easy to think that through in terms of how my actions affect specific people (not always to easy to act correctly, but easy to think through) and harder sometimes to grasp the ways my actions affect, say, a nation of people. A nation of people like, for example, Germans. Actions like, for example, reacting with fear (moving away on the subway platform, crossing the street) when I encounter a group of young, drunk German men. Not that that's such a strange reaction for me to have to any drunk men, but we all know that what we feel inside projects externally, and I look into the faces of these guys and I think to myself, I am not like them. They are not my people.

How different is this from how I felt during the years I endured living in Hoboken -- another town filled with drunk white guys? It's different. While I crossed the street to avoid those guys too, I didn't feel like they were representing their entire nation (or even their state.) At a core level, they didn't make me feel like the other, even though I didn't feel the same as them. Hard to explain, and I expect nationalism plays into it some, but I also think that the experience of being a Jew in Germany, for the first time, with our particular history of otherness, is unavoidably at play.

In an attempt to break down the barrier, I decided to drink a beer on the S-Bahn, like so many Germans do. I didn't need to pretend I was one of them, but just to see what it would feel like to do what they do. So I bought a beer at a kiosk in the S-Bahn station, and the vendor asked me if I wanted it open, and I said yes. So there I was with my open beer in the station, and we walked over to our next train, and I took some sips and said the Shehekhianu. I knew I wouldn't really have the same experience that they have because I just don't drink that much; it only takes a few sips to make me tipsy, and I don't like getting drunk. But in some ways, just carrying the open beer through the station -- and up and out onto the street -- was the heart of the experience for me, and I do think it helped me break down the barrier I was hoping it might. Later, when I was heading home alone to throw together a seder (more on that in a minute) I had to wait 10 minutes for a transfer, and I stood near four guys who were already several beers in to their post-work wind-down. And while I didn't love the checked-out look in their red eyes, and I still wonder what it means that there is so much public drinking in this nation which has faced so much national trauma -- while I still wonder all that, I also felt just a tiny bit less of the other by virtue of having a shared experience.

I wish I had enough time to do this all justice, but I am running out here. Janina, Kathleen, and I found out that the first night seder we were planning to go to in the evening was really a second night seder, so at the last minute, we decided to make our own. At the next last minute, Kathleen and I decided she would hang out for a couple hours, and I would go back to pull the seder together. I'm going to gloss over this, but basically, I got to a grocery store at 5:30, and filled my basket with the essentials: bitter herbs, a parsnip (to represent the shankbone), wine, grape juice, and horseradish (which was hard to find without knowing its name in German!) I already had some apples, nuts, and dates for the kharoyses, a little bit of oat matse I had brought with me from home, and some eggs to hard boil. Then I got stuff for a meal -- salad and fish. I was home at the apartment by 6, and had the eggs on the stove by 6:05. I had an entire seder plate and meal prepared by 6:45, when I realized we should have some potatoes. So I went back out, bought some potatoes, and got them going too. Long story short, as I made this seder appear out of thin air, I realized, I know how to do this. It all came as second nature, and in Germany no less. I didn't have a hagode, but I figured we could tell the story ourselves. I just wasn't worried about it.

When Janina arrived, she brought the perfect additions: a box of matse, some cinnamon and ginger (that made the kharoyses taste much better, parsley (we replaced the spinach I had used, more juice, and an entire smoked chicken. Also, she brought two Yiddish hagodes. There's much to say about all this that I would write if I had more time (and I might go in and revise this post later, so check back if you're interested) but for me the most significant part was that I knew so well how to make this happen, and as I stood alone in Christian's kitchen grating apples and chopping nuts, I felt connected to Jews worldwide, and grateful for the chance to be connected in that way. And then we sat together at our little table, me and two gentiles who love Jewish culture, and we created our own awkward, impromptu Yiddish, English, sort of musical, sort of political seder. Omeyn.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Went to outdoor karaoke in Mauerpark

Never Done: Spent the afternoon with probably two thousand people listening to outdoor karaoke

Kathleen loves karaoke. She had, in fact, hoped to be the person to introduce me to karaoke so that I would love it the first time I did it. After that didn't happen, she hoped that we would do karaoke together somewhere else, and that doing it with her would make me love it. I am very open to that possibility, but I am also open to the possibility that it's just not my thing. She also expressed some interest in doing karaoke together when we would be here in Berlin, and again, I felt completely open to that idea. Then she heard that there's a guy who sets up karaoke on Sundays in the Mauer Park flea market, and so we put it on our list of things to do when not doing things more directly linked to our mission in Berlin.

First of all, the flea market felt like a huge flea market anywhere. Vintage eyeglass frames and old tools interspersed with beautiful bamboo silk screened tee shirts. Old boots and jackets interspersed with handmade jewelry. Old and new photographs interspersed with -- what was that that? -- a gun? And what was that? -- a gas mask? OK, so maybe it's not like flea markets everywhere. We left the gas masks behind and entered a beer garden (my first! never done!) with grilled fish and sausages and split pea soup with more sausage. From there we wandered over to the outdoor karaoke, where an Irish guy KJ'd (karaoke jockeyed) for hours, the only compensation we saw being the coffee can he passed through the crowd, which people happily contributed to. I thought to myself, this is what my life used to be like, and this is what I used to want it to stay like, and there is still a part of me that yearns for this life.

Not that I was going to be a karaoke jockey, but that I was part of outdoor alternative economies throughout the 80s and a little bit in the 90s. Mostly I busked (played music on the streets) but I did other things too. I spent quite a bit of time with people who set up booths outside and sold things -- first in England, with the Green Roadshow, at Peace and Music festivals, and then in the United States, at the New England and Michigan Womyn's Music Festivals, the Common Ground Fair, and the Oregon Country Fair. In England, I ran an alternative tea house with some friends, and our motto was "we don't serve proper tea, 'cause proper tea is theft." A the Oregon Country Fair, I worked in the booth of someone who made handmade knives, and I also juggled, made and sold pies, and played music in exchange for food. I did the same things at the music festivals, and I also did work exchange -- bartered for my time at the festival with my work in the kitchen and a job I didn't enjoy, parking cars.

If I look honestly at that part of me that still yearns for this life, I see that it's not so much about being stuck in the past as about being unhappy with the present. How to put this? For all the years that I lived in Maine, I lived in rented apartments in old houses, and eventually in a yurt that I built together with my partner at the time, which we put on a beautiful 5 acres that we rented for $25/month. My mother used to say that I didn't live in Maine, that I lived in "alternative Maine." I always had jobs -- Family Planning counselor, Rape Crisis Assistance co-director, movie projectionist and all around do everything person, and also waitress and cook at a cafe that I eventually co-ran with a friend, pulling 17-hour days and bottom lining a business. So, how alternative was that? But it was, somehow, more in the mode I yearn for than the mode I live in now, and I think the difference is New York City. Even though I am more politically active now than I was then, and have a far better analysis of racism and other forms of systemic oppression, and have become a much more effective agent of change, I feel cooped up and ineffective. Cooped up by a city apartment, cooped up by exorbitant rent, cooped up by the confines of the city itself. Maybe part of it is that I am older, and weighed down with more possessions than I used to be, including many more that plug in. I don't think I owned anything that plugged in until I was in my very late 20s. Now I would be hard pressed to part with my computer and cell phone, and would have to think hard before giving up my Cuisinart and my compound angle miter saw.

So I was thinking about all this, while we were outside in Berlin on a sunny day, listening to people sing American pop songs on a karaoke machine. It was just the second time I'd been around karaoke (I wrote about the first -- it was in a room with people who all knew each other, rather than in a public space) and so much more fun. There was a spirit of relaxation and encouragement that didn't seem to depend on whether or not the person was a very good singer. It turns out that's not really the point. A couple people had good voices, but most people were singing off key, or didn't really know the words to the songs they picked -- and yet they wanted to get up and sing in front of a couple thousand strangers. The ones that gave most pleasure to the crowd either picked songs that were fun to sing along with, or had fantastic stage presence. Kathleen wanted to sing, and I asked when we got there if she could, and the KJ told us they would open up the list in about an hour. So in about an hour, I went up and asked again, and I was able to put her name on the list, but by then they had actually accepted a bunch more people. After another hour or so, she went up to check, and she found out that her name was last on the list, and that they would be stopping at 7PM, and that she might not get a chance to sing. I was hoping it would happen. I loved the idea, given what she is here for, of this huge crowd of Germans clapping and whooping for her. Also, I just wanted to hear her sing karaoke, because it's something that brings her so much joy. But time ran out before her name got called, and finally the Irish KJ took the mic and belted out a great Brechtian version of Minnie the Moocher, and the big, drinking, smoking German audience sang along in response: Hidey hidey hidey ho!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Was chased by a German shepherd in Germany, and then, later, went to the Berlin Wall

Never Done: Was chased by a German shepherd in Germany, and then, later, went to the Berlin Wall

Just because I am in Berlin doesn't mean I am not still training for the triathlon, so after I woke up early and did some yoga to loosen up, and went down to the park on the corner (men drinking beer at 9 AM and hanging out with their German shepherds) to find some WiFi (from the corner café) so I could blog and answer some emails, after all that I came back to the apartment and put on my running gear, and set out for something that (on the little map Christian left us) looked like a sports stadium, which I thought might have a running track.

It is beautiful in Berlin right now -- there are leaves on the trees, and blooms on all the bloomy ones as well, so with just shorts and a long-sleeved shirt, I ran along the cobblestone street where I'm staying, and back through the park with the guys, the beers, and the dogs, and past the kids playing basketball, when ... what? What's that? Damn, there is an actual German shepherd chasing me, in actual Germany. Kathleen, who loves dogs, had already remarked how well-behaved the dogs are here. They are not on leashes, and they tend to stay close and obedient to their people. So when I ran past this one, it didn't actually occur to me that it might give chase, but its owners weren't demanding much obedience. I used to be extremely scared of dogs (having been bitten in the face like happens in a cartoon, when my entire face was in between the dog's jaws) and I have worked hard on my relationships to individual dogs, and to the species as a whole, and in fact I am less scared and more relaxed with them than I used to be. And guess what? It turns out that I'm even less scared and more relaxed when I'm in Germany and a German shepherd comes after me. With an authoritative "Nein!" and a strong arm gesturing away from me, I deflected them, and kept on running. My heart rate was elevated more than it would normally be at the start of a run, so after a block (to get away from the dogs) I slowed down to a walk and started over again.

My goal was to run for 40 minutes, because we are ramping up the training. I've been at 30 minutes for three weeks now, and struggling (leg cramps) to increase 32. But I did well -- ran for 37 minutes, much of it on a beautiful outdoor track in that sports complex, amidst tall muscular blond German runners. It turns out that everything about Germany makes me feel like a Jew.

After lunch and a shower, Kathleen and I set out to find the remnants of the Berlin Wall. We're those people who only sort of understand the language, who would normally be relying on a smart phone but are instead piecing together directions from two little maps and one guidebook. But we're persistent, and we found Mauer (wall) park, along with the museum, documentation center, and chapel of Reconciliation -- all built on the site, to help contextualize the wall itself.

The first thing we noticed when we approached the museum was the Nutella crepe vendor. I know this happens all over the world -- that people sell comfort food at sites of great pain -- and in some cases like this one we get to see the ways that capitalism overtook communism. I know that is to be expected, and yet it still feels unexpected. I did my best to just ignore it, and to focus on the historical information given on each floor of the tower we were climbing, to get to a lookout, to look over Bernauerstrasse and onto the remnants of the wall. On the second floor of the tower, there is an exhibit with photo and text panels and video, that was actually the most clear and informative thing I'd ever seen about the wall.

They bricked in the windows of people's homes if they lived in buildings on the border street, and eventually evacuated and displaced them, and tore down the buildings. In response, some people jumped out windows on the West German side, and escaped. We saw video of that. We also saw lots of video and photo images of German shepherds guarding the wall. But what touched me most were the images of people who were separated from one side to another. People who would wave to each other and cry, and try to communicate through arm gestures. People who presumably used to live with one another, who now so close, and yet so far from one another.

When we went down and actually touched the wall, I became enraged. Enraged that anyone thinks this is a good idea. That the U.S. built a wall between Mexico and Arizona, that Israel has walled off Palestine. Have we not learned that this is repressive and ineffective? That people will rise to fight any level of oppression? That people will risk their lives to connect with the people they need to be connected to? Have we learned nothing?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

I spent a day in Germany

Never Done: Spent a day in Germany

And there are just so many ways I could break that down more specifically:

Never got off a plane, stood in line for passport control, and saw a good friend (David Krakauer) through the glass, standing in line for security. (We didn't get to talk, but we did get to pantomime.)

Never took the S-Bahn. Never took the U-Bahn.

Never tried to explain to German people that while I don't speak German, I do speak Yiddish, and maybe we could figure out together how to communicate. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. When it works, I think the real communication comes not so much in getting the words right, but in the delight we all have in trying so hard. I have already started to modify some of my Yiddish vowels to German ones, and it's making a difference. While it might be a difference in actual comprehension, I think it's at least equally important that they can tell I am trying. I've never been in this position before -- all my life, wherever I have traveled, I have been in the uncomplicated position of knowing that it is respectful (and for me, linguistically interesting) to do my best to speak the language of the place. That I move to meet them, and not expect them to move to meet me. This time it's got a twist. If I only knew English, I would feel the same. That it's Yiddish that I know adds a layer of complexity, because when I have the thought that it's important and respectful that I start to bend my vowels and reach for words that I have picked up in German instead of Yiddish, I have this nagging thought in the back of my head, "Do I really have to bend my Yiddish to make it easier for the Germans? Or could the Germans perhaps bend a little to understand my Yiddish?" I realize that when I have these thoughts, I'm in some territory that transcends me and the person I'm speaking with, and that it doesn't really make sense to resolve a grievance between Yiddish and German when I am trying to figure out how to say "oatmeal" (Is it what horses eat? Yes!) but I would be lying if I said it didn't creep in there anyhow.

Was never in Berlin.

After being friends for twenty years, never before traveled with Kathleen.

Never missed my mom's yortsayt. (You can't light a candle on a plane! I ended up lighting the candle 24 hours later.)

Never walked past a street book vendor in Berlin and saw a book with a swastika on it. (I just kept going, because we were on our way to our first meeting.)

Never sat in a cafe with Kathleen and a filmmaker who has made two films about the Red Army Faction, and listened to them talk with each other, each from their own unique perspective. I know this is the heart of the trip, but it's also not mine to write about publicly, so I'm telling you now that I'll be pretty fingers-off-the-keyboard on this topic.

Never (literally) fell asleep standing up. It turns out that we don't have internet in the apartment where we are staying, and so Kathleen and I went looking for some alternate modes of communication -- in particular, a SIM card for Kathleen's phone. But by the time we found a place that had one, I was nodding off at the counter, my knees buckling and jerking me awake. I think I maybe had one hour of interrupted sleep on the plane the night before, and we hadn't had time to rest before going back out to our first meeting, so I was running on fumes.

Never went into a German department store (where K got the 100% cotton socks she'd been dreaming of getting since the last time she visited Germany.)

Never been so happy to finally fall asleep lying down, under a poster of Charlie Chaplain, in Christian Dawid's beautiful new apartment, in PrenzlauerBerg, in the former East Germany.

Friday, April 15, 2011

I didn't do my taxes on time

Never Done: I didn't do my taxes on time
Never Done: I flew to Germany

I know it's not even tax day yet because they extended it by another three days, but Kathleen and I got on a plane to Germany, and I didn't do my taxes. I didn't even add up all the receipts that are sitting in a plastic container at home. Actually, I think I should back up a little. My mom died on April 15, 2008. Tax day. Before that, I was taxation's golden girl. I filed early, whether by myself or with the help of an accountant. I had a filing system of legal-sized envelopes which I've labeled in Sharpie: Income, Office in home, Business equipment, Donations, Transportation, etc. Over the course of the year, I would pile my receipts and pay stubs in a plastic box, and then sometime in January I would choose a weekend, turn on some movies, and dump the receipts all over the floor, and file them til only a few random ones remained, which I had put into the envelope named Misc. Then I would compile all the information onto a big document, and either do my taxes myself, or send the info to my accountant. While I don't think I would say I looked forward to the yearly ritual, I also don't think I would say I didn't at some level enjoy it. Because I like Order: All actions and possessions should have a set place and time.

And then my mom died.

The year she died, I filed for my first extension ever. The year after she died, I filed for my second extension ever. The next year, I filed for my third extension ever. It's a stretch to say that I filed for those extensions though; really, I asked my accountant to do it for me. I must have had to add up all the numbers before April 15 though, because I had to make estimated payments. To tell the truth, I don't remember doing any of it. The bloom was off the rose, and like it is for most people, there was no pleasure in order; just a chore to be put off. And instead of getting easier and easier, like things are supposed to as time goes on and supposedly heals all wounds, it has actually gotten harder and harder, and this year I just didn't get it together until it was too late.

Part of the problem is that I don't like my accountant. I haven't liked him for many years now, but the same inertia that got me into this situation has also made it impossible for me to find a new one. Impossible. That sounds ridiculous. And at the same time, grief gets displaced in a million strange ways, and sometimes you just can't find a new accountant. I wrote to him about 2 months ago to get the usual ball rolling, and he didn't write back. And then I wrote again a couple weeks later, and his reply, which came in another couple of weeks, was oblique and passive aggressive. Actually, maybe it was just aggressive. He wrote, "I have been thinking about the last two e-mails and how to respond. Not sure how to crumple up e-mails like letters."

Just so you know, my first email asked him how to separate business and personal income, and for the record, I did not ask in an asshole-ish way. The second email asked him to reply to the first. Rather than crumpling up his email like a letter, I think I crumpled, and just stopped dealing with my taxes altogether.

On the upside, this experience has given me a huge amount of compassion for people who are chronically late with their taxes. On the downside, I didn't do anything about them again until the morning of my trip to Germany, the day before tax day, and the eve of my mom's yortsayt. On the upside, I added up all my income. On the downside, I didn't add up any of my expenses. On the upside, I figured out how to calculate how much tax I might have to pay. On the downside, I couldn't figure out if I needed to pay it to New Jersey (where my business is officially housed) or New York (where I live.) On the upside, I called both New Jersey and New York and got incredibly nice and patient people who at least helped me with the online forms to file extensions. On the downside, I am still not sure what "sales and use tax" is, and why the New York online form doesn't actually have a line for "income tax." On the upside, I think I covered my ass with both states. On the downside, Kathleen pointed out to me, once we were on the plane, that I forgot to file a federal extension. Oops. On the upside, she has some program on her computer and is going to help me do it from Germany. On the upside (that's two upsides in a row, and a signal that this is coming around to some Big Meaning) I spent most of my life staving off feelings of chaos by arriving early to parties and getting my taxes done two months early, and I think it does me good to test the waters of chaos. So I asked myself, "What's the worst thing that could happen?" and laughed a lot, and then realized that the worst thing that could happen was that I'd get some fine, and that I didn't really want to get a fine. So I decided to do my best to get an extension, and to do my best to estimate how much to pay, and maybe I'll mess up, and maybe I won't, and let the chips, and the taxes, fall in the general direction of order, if not neatly filed into individually labeled legal-sized envelopes.

Also, I flew to Germany.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

I finished watching Battlestar Gallactica Season 2.5 and it made me think about my father

Never Done: I finished watching Battlestar Gallactica Season 2.5

Humility is about seeking wisdom from others, right? Especially when we have some resistance to the wisdom? So ... how many times did my friends have to tell me to watch Battlestar Gallactica before I did? Ten? Twenty? Fifty? And why didn't I believe them earlier? Because I don't think of myself as liking SciFi. But they told me I'd like BSG. But I didn't think I would. I know this might not seem like the most world-changing issue to ever come down the pike, but if I think about it in terms of being open to new experiences, and about being a person who says yes to other people -- two qualities which I really love in others, and which I think are particularly important for parents of teenagers -- then it's actually pretty significant.

Plus, I have a HUGE daddy complex on Admiral Adama, and I just can't stop watching him. He *is* my dad. He's tough and compassionate and humble and powerful and seasoned and rational and willing to admit when he's made a mistake. Just like my dad. I recently had a reader request (I had a reader request!) for more info on my dad. Such a huge subject, one's parent ... where to start? I guess the big thing in my family is that in addition to my father having all the above qualities, he also, it turned out, had the ability to keep a secret. A big secret. From everyone he loved. Including his wife and two daughters.

He was an optical engineer, and he designed cameras. When I was a kid, I thought he designed eyeglass lenses, and then I thought he designed camera lenses for consumer cameras. I really didn't grasp what he was doing at all, but I thought it was in the way that kids don't grasp what their parents do if they have confusing (to a kid) middle class jobs. But it turns out it wasn't that at all. It turns out that nobody understood what he was doing, and for good reason; it was top secret.

Part of the problem with writing about his top secret life is that I still have some child-like confusions about it, which make me feel a little embarrassed. Also, I am getting on a plane for Germany in a few hours, and I haven't packed, and it's the night before my mom's yortsayt, and I didn't do my taxes yet, and I am generally distracted. So let's take this in the spirit that it's OK to say a little, and if it remains impressionistic and mysterious ... well, that's what it feels like to me most of the time. My dad took film footage of the Able and Baker bomb tests in the Bikini Islands. His work there connected him with some people in photo reconnaissance, and he ended up working at Boston University Physical Research Lab, where he was part of a team building cameras that could spy on the Soviet Union. It was the Space Race, and the Soviets had gotten Sputnik up into orbit. Eventually BUPRL was bought out by Itek Corporation, and my dad and his colleagues got a CIA contract to design and build the first aerial reconnaissance satellite camera. So over the next I don't know how many years, he was flying to Palo Alto and Cape Canaveral and Washington DC and wherever else people fly when they are doing high-level top-secret military industrial complex work, but we didn't know about any of it. He was meeting with Rockefellers and Presidents and heads of CIA and NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) and NASA, and I pretty much pictured him making eyeglass lenses in Lexington, MA.

I mean, I was little. He would come home and build me stilts to walk on, and he would plant corn and grow grapes and we would make wine and tap maple trees and sugar off and build furniture in his wood shop and then he'd go away and then he'd come back and sometimes he'd be upset and sometimes he'd be distracted and usually he was pretty stable and powerful and rational and compassionate and humble and tough, just like Admiral Adama, but he was my dad.

I don't know how he kept it all together -- living a secret work life and full family life. We didn't find out until it was declassified. (Al Gore declassified the work in 1995 so that he could use the photographic imagery to study deforestation in the Black Forest.) And when I say "we" I mean, all of us, including my mother. My parents were incredibly close, and they always told us there were no secrets between them, so imagine what a mind-fuck it was for my mother to learn that there had been a huge secret between them for thirty five years. Imagine the effects of thirty five years of secrecy on the family. Imagine my father's relief when the wall finally came down. (His blood pressure came down to normal, without medication; his anger and depression eased.) And imagine why, when ten years after he died, after I never got enough information about his real life, I encountered BSG, I might be fixated on watching the strong, complex, cutthroat yet compassionate military leader at work. And by the way, it's the same reason I am obsessed with Mad Men -- because I get to watch Don Draper, a strong, conflicted, brilliant, complex, cutthroat man with a secret, at work.

So it might not seem like the most world-changing event to come down the pike, but it means something to me. And now I'm going to start watching Season 3.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

I started EMDR

Never Done: I started EMDR

I started EMDR therapy. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. I don't think I even know what to say about it yet, because it is so new, except that I think it might be one of the most useful modalities I have ever encountered.

I guess the thing I can say, from both ethical and also personal points of view, is that over the course of time that I spent in adoption classes, I realized that I still have some significant trauma to heal though, and that I wanted to take a big stab at it before starting to parent.

Deep breath.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

I contacted an ap developer

Never Done: I contacted an iPad ap developer

When Mickey and I went to Florida, and I just traveled with my iPad, I wasn't able to post my blog posts, because the security monkeys who track my every move with a security device knew that I wasn't at home. But you posted every day, I hear you think. Yes I did. Because Josh was amenable enough to go into my computer at home and re-set my Facebook account to let it know that my mobile device hadn't been stolen. You'd think once would be enough, but the next day, when I wanted to post again, guess what? He had to do it again. And guess what happened the next day?

I am about to travel to Germany, and I am considering traveling without my laptop, to go easy on my back that just went into spasm last night (tshuve) but I don't want to have any posting/connection problems. So I went online to see if I could find an FAQ for Blogpress, the ap I use to post remotely to this blog. The FAQ wasn't too helpful, but I did find a link to customer service. I wrote, I asked my question, and within minutes I had an email back from the ap developer himself, one Feng Huajun.

There is something demystifying about this to me. I often think of the world as opaque, but in moments like this I see that it's actually quite transparent and graspable. There's a guy, like many other guys I know, who developed an ap, and has a Facebook page (I found it) and writes back to people. Maybe he lives in my neighborhood, and maybe he lives somewhere in China, but he is still just a guy, maybe in a suit at an office, maybe home in his pajamas, and he's within my reach.

Monday, April 11, 2011

I wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times

Never Done: I wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times

I used to love reading the New York Times Magazine. I loved Lives, The Ethicist, the Interview, Recipe Redux. Slowly it's all changing -- and in my opinion for the worse. I haven't enjoyed the Ethicist since Randy Cohen left. Same goes for the Interview. The new layout of the Magazine seems like it's geared for shorter and shorter attentions spans (what was so hard about reading something one page long?) and I pretty much was only holding out because I loved to read Diagnosis, by Lisa Sanders, M.D. And now they've gone and screwed with that too.

I once had a letter to the editor published in the Boston Globe. I was about 11 when I wrote it, in defense of John Denver after the Globe had given him an egregious review. I don't actually remember what I wrote, but it must have been strong, because they picked it up. My mother was the editor of The Harvard Post for 25 years, so I grew up listening to her talk extensively about letters to the editor; she took them seriously, and grappled with her responsibility to her readership. I did not grow up to be someone who writes letters to the editor. In fact, I don't think I've written one since my letter in defense of John Denver. So it came as a surprise to me that I felt strongly about something to write my first letter to the New York Times.

In hindsight, I think I rushed it and didn't build a case for the very strong statement I ended up making. On the other hand, I kept it under 150 words and I spoke from the heart, the way they recommend. It's a little hard to evaluate from an ethical/Mussar perspective -- (maybe if Randy Cohen were still writing the Ethicist, I could get a little help here) -- but I have always believed that mediocre evaluations bring mediocre results, so I tend to go for glowing or scathing, and let the chips fall where they may. Without further ado, this is what I wrote:

The first thing I do when I get the Magazine is to look to see if there’s a Diagnosis column, my excitement heightened by virtue of it being an irregular regular column. But my excitement waned quickly when I tried to navigate the new flow-chart layout and I had to endure the reader response segment in this week’s column. I miss Lisa Sanders’s intimate narrative prose, which has been replaced by shaded circles and serviceable text inside rectangles. If you must go to such lengths to appeal to an internet-based readership, maybe your next Think Like a Doctor contest could be to diagnose the cause of death of the Magazine itself.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

I went to the Trade School and learned to make felt

Never Done: I went to the Trade School and learned to make felt

Trade School is a school where you barter for instruction, which "celebrates practical wisdom, mutual respect, and the social nature of exchange." Esther told me about it, and Mich and I signed up for a felting class called Feltmaking for Nomads, taught by an artist named Hope Ginsburg.

I was just about to launch into a big description for you, but then I realized that I should quote from Trade School's website, because it will give you just as good a grasp of what actually happened as if I would write about it. Quoting. Starts. Now.

Feltmaking for Nomads is a three-hour wool felt-making workshop in which you will produce a piece of felt with an inlaid design of your choosing. With the new skills that you’ll acquire, you could go on to make bowls, socks, or a weatherproof house for life on the steppes. We will briefly go over the history, technology and mythology of wool felt which may or may not have originated on Noah’s Ark. You will get very clean making felt, so be sure to wear clothes that can withstand soap and hot water. Materials will be provided. Nomadic futures will be conjured.

Hope Ginsburg is an artist who lives and works in Richmond, VA. Her ongoing project “Sponge” is headquartered at the Anderson Gallery at VCUarts, where she teaches classes like People: Of, By, For and Colablablab. Hope is a felt-maker, neophyte aquarist and honeybee enthusiast. Feltmaking for Nomads will run concurrently with Hope’s exhibition about the first five years of “Sponge” at the CUE Art Foundation (March 24-May 7, 2011.)

In exchange for:
  • Wool socks
  • Book about John Dewey
  • Cake to eat during class
  • Supplies for a nomadic life (x1, your interpretation)
  • Felt object from workshop you teach in the future
  • A special teacup
  • Something to do with traveling to Mongolia
  • A relic from visiting a coral reef
  • Small collection of artificial sponges
  • Bee smoker
  • Hive tool
  • Anything made from wool, really.
End quote.

But did you catch that In exchange for: part? I signed up to bring a felt object from a workshop I intend to teach in the future. But between the time I signed up to bring it, and the time the class actually started, I had forgotten that it was a barter item and not a show and tell item. So I brought this wonderful felted bar of soap that my friend Carol had given me that her friend Bernice had made. It's basically continually felted around the soap, and you can just get in the shower and scrub with it and it gets all soapy. It's great. Except it's not really the thing you want to give away to your felting teacher, it having spent a good deal of time already in your armpits. I did offer it to Hope anyhow, and she tenderly returned it and suggested that I should keep my armpit felt. I told her I would send her something else, and now I'm a little obsessed with thinking about what that might be.

Here's the thing the blurb won't tell you. Trade School is wonderful! It's in an old school on Prince Street, it's run by a bunch of young people who are committed to alternate economies, it's run efficiently and with a high level of teaching (at least our class was) -- and it brought together an extremely interesting spectrum of attendees. Middle aged immigrant women artists, a retired street belt salesman, 20-somethings in hipster flour sack dresses and felt/plastic jackets. If you go on the website, you will see other classes they offered this semester (and btw, you can still sign up for some) like Squat the Condos, How to Teach a Class, Edible Glass, Balloon Animals 101...

Mich and I spent some time thinking about what class we might teach, and we came up with Clean Up As You Go, and by the way we'll be making macarons. (I am really good at cleaning up as I go, and Mich knows how to make macarons, and is planning to teach me in the next few weeks, which I am sure will show up on this blog.) We also came up with the idea that we could teach a 1970s-style class about women's bodies and reproductive health. Speculums and mirrors and all. Would you take either of our classes?

The classroom, and the wool, before we started:

What I made:

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Something huge that I can't say yet that has to do with adoption

Never Done: Something huge that I can't say yet that has to do with adoption

Josh and I went to an event, co-sponsored by Wendy's Wonderful Kids and You Gotta Believe -- two organizations that do fantastic work despite their names. (Ouch -- did I really just say that?) It was an open house for teens in foster care and prospective parents to meet and talk. We had been told that R would be there, and R had been told that we would be there. When we arrived, there were about 20 young people, 10 social workers, and one other prospective parent. Over the time we stayed, 10 more youth but only one other parent showed up. How must this feel to them? Truly how must this feel? And it turned out that one of the other parents, like us, were there to see a particular child, leaving one prospective parent to potentially meet his match from one of 30 teens.

R wasn't there when we got there, so I sat down and started talking with some young people. It was totally awkward and yet I reached through a couple times and found some connections, and even some laughter. And then R showed up, and after a while I excused myself and went to talk with her. She hugged me, and she shook Josh's hand, and we ended up sitting together and talking for about 2 hours. Really talking. Learning about her talking. And -- after listening to her for a long time -- I asked her if she would like my perspective on what is essentially one of her deepest coping devices, and she became very focused and said yes. And then she listened to what I had to say, and then a flood gate opened, and she just talked and talked and talked and talked about what her life is really like. Those minutes filled me with great hope for her -- and maybe our -- future.

And then her social worker told her it was time to leave. But before she took off, D from You Gotta Believe wanted to take our photo together, so R put her arm around me, and Josh came in on the other side of me, and we posed together for our first photo. Then R gave me a hug and a kiss, and almost shook Josh's hand but hugged him, and then she was driven off to the residential treatment center (formerly called an orphanage) where she lives.

And then an even more amazing thing happened. Someone from the agency gave us some very good news that I am not yet free to share, because it involves a little rule bending. What I can say is that the people we are working with are consistently excellent at balancing out their ethical responsibilities to the others they serve. Primarily, they tend to the young people in foster care. But at the same time, they are thoughtful and responsible to the potential parents. But I take great comfort in knowing that if the needs of one of the young people and my needs would ever come into conflict, that the agency would act in the best interest of the child. It's a delicate balance, and they hold it with great clarity. And, with great clarity of purpose comes the ability to evaluate individual situations and move things along ... perhaps outside the rigid restrictions of bureaucracy.

Vague, yes. But if you're thinking you might want to be happy for me, you're right. And hopeful. And giddy. (Oh wait, maybe those are my own emotions I am describing.) And please be understanding if I have to pull back on some social events for a while. Could be. Who knows?

Friday, April 8, 2011

I watched Breaking Bad

Never Done: I watched Breaking Bad

I recently read an interview in which Tony Kushner said he thinks that some of the best dramatic writing being done now is for cable TV dramas, and The Wire and Breaking Bad were his primary examples. Apparently, when Tony Kushner tells me to watch something, I put it on my Netflix queue and get around to it a few months later. The problem is, I am a monogamous TV viewer, and I am currently seeing Battlestar Gallactica. (And I am quite happy in our relationship. We usually see each other late at night, in bed.)

But after friend after friend told me how good Breaking Bad is, I finally gave it a look. I like that there's a character with cerebral palsy, and I like that it gets underneath a mundane working/middle class life and shows us a world of seedy underbelly possibilities. In case you don't know, it's about a meek high school chemistry teacher who is struggling financially -- so much so that he has a second job at a car wash -- and is diagnosed in the Season One Premiere with inoperable lung cancer. Hoping he can secure his family's financial future, he teams up with a former student turned fuck-up, and cooks the kind of pure methamphetamine that only a meek high school chemistry teacher can cook. It turns out, he's a crystal meth artist.

At its essence, Breaking Bad is about a middle-aged man reinventing himself. A meek man who at the start of the episode can't get a hard-on (granted, his wife was paying more attention to her laptop than she was to the hand job) rediscovers his virility after he creates a mobile meth lab, knocks off a couple drug dealers, wields a hand gun, and flees from the authorities in his skivvies. Also, after he kicks and humiliates a trio of immature high school thugs who are mocking his son (the one with cerebral palsy.) In essence, cancer gives him a new lease on life.

I wonder if Breaking Bad will follow in the tradition of misdiagnosis literature (the loftiest that I can think of being Soul Mountain) -- in which the main character thinks their life is nearing its end, and so they change everything, only to find that there was a mistake, and that, as the saying goes, life goes on. But now that bridges are burned, priorities clarified, old patterns shed, and hard-ons regained, they get a brand new life. I can't say for sure, but it's my guess. (I was right when after the Battlestar pilot I guessed that BSG is an Earth creation myth.) I'll have to watch to find out. But first, I have a hot date with another two seasons of Battlestar.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

I (reluctantly) upgraded to Snow Leopard

Never Done: I upgraded to Snow Leopard (Mac operating system) after spending 6.5 hours at the Mac genius bar and still not entirely resolving my calendar syncing issues

Do I sound bitter? I think I have every right to be, but the truth is, the guys I spent the afternoon - and evening - with were fantastic. They made the practices of Humility: seek wisdom from others and and Equanimity: Rise above events that are inconsequential much easier than they could have been. I had to miss my Mussar group. I had to miss my workout. I had to buy dinner out (but I turned it into a Never Done opportunity by going to the Chelsea Market, which is amazing, vast, and as Mickey put it, like Wonkaland, with all the delicious things to offer.)

Briefly, the deal is that ever since I bought my computer and iPhone, the syncing has given me trouble. Randomly, contacts and calendars will duplicate. I've spent hundreds (not an exaggeration) of hours troubleshooting, cleaning up, and fixing the problem, only to have it happen again. Apple has told me that "some people have this problem" and hasn't been able to solve it. Recently something worse happened -- my entire calendar disappeared. I've been trying to work that out on my own for about a month, and then today I finally went in for help. It turns out that the problem started when Apple created a new iCal, which is not compatible with my operating system -- which is not very old; my computer is a mere toddler, at three. It turns out, the day they launched iCal, it wiped my calendar. And then when I started to re-build it (from memory and old backups) it would not sync with my iPhone. This problem was so deeply hidden that it took four hours and two Mac Genius guys and three MobileMe online chat specialists (the Geniuses were on the chat line with the MobileMe specialists) to conclude that my "old" operating system was just not going to support this new calendar. But damn, were they persistent! And diligent. And good-natured. And communicative.

So if they weren't the problem, what was? I think it's the Apple corporation, who upgraded their calendar to something that is incompatible with the machines of millions of users, and so are forcing millions of people to upgrade their Operating System (as of May 5.) And this doesn't come free. Snow Leopard costs $39 (although my Geniuses gave it to me for "free.") (The quotation marks, in case you missed it, are supposed to indicate that spending 6.5 hours of my time isn't exactly free.)

And yet, somehow, I have brand loyalty to Apple. Maybe it's because their machines are so pretty, and maybe it's because they're so user-friendly to intuitive types like me, but maybe it's because of guys like Chazz, who stayed well past the time the Genius bar was closed, to see me through to resolution (for now.)

(Update: new problem, discovered the following morning: now that I upgraded to Snow Leopard, iTunes doesn't recognize my iPhone. iThink that sucks.)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

It took a Jehovah's Witness to remind me I'm a good Jew

Never Done: I answered the door for the Jehovah's Witnesses

I was working at my computer, when I saw two women come up to my front door. I knew who they were, so even though I knew they could see me inside, just like I could see them outside, I just kept typing. They rang the bell, and I kept typing. It's a reflex I have -- I don't answer the door for proselytizers. But then I realized -- this is one of those opportunities I need to take. So I got up from the computer, and I went to the door, and I stood face to face with two women and a pamphlet.

How does he do so?
Why is this necessary?
How can you benefit?

APRIL 17, 2011

Me: Hello
Woman: We'd like to invite you to an event to celebrate our Passover. We are inviting everyone. Everyone is welcome.
Me: (internal) Wait, does she know I'm Jewish?
Me: (aloud) Thank you. Why are you inviting me?
Woman: Something about Jesus and why he died. (I zoned out a little there.)
Me: Oh, so you're proselytizing.
Woman: No, we don't proselytize. We just want to invite you to read our Bible.
Me: Why?
Woman: Something about the Book of Job, Satan, and what's so special about their Bible. And again, she mentioned that everyone is welcome, and everyone is invited, and everyone can find something useful in it.
Me: So you're Christians.

At this point, the woman in the back started to shake her head very, very slowly -- as if to tell the woman I was talking with to get out fast. But the woman I was talking with couldn't see her -- I could see her. So then I wondered if maybe she was shaking her head to me -- to tell me not to bother. But we both kept going. She said that yes, they were Christians, and I told her that I am not. And she said, "I know, you're Jewish."

My head was spinning. How did she know? What was going on? Do they know who everyone is? Is this always what it's like when you open the door for them? And then she pointed to the paper menorah that's been hanging in the window since Khanike.

And the woman in the back is shaking her head. And I'm wondering what it must be like for people when it's Prince at their door instead of anonymous Brooklyn women. And the woman in front is talking about how Jews are waiting for the Messiah, but Jesus talked with everyone, and they are like Jesus, talking with everyone. At this point, I sort of lost the point of why we were talking. Was I just there to have an argument with her? Was there a way to make a connection?

So I said, I'm all for talking with everyone. I just don't believe that it's respectful to try to convert people. And she said, "Jesus was a Jew. Can we agree on that?" And I said that yes, I could agree to that. (I refrained from mentioning that he is likely a literary invention.) And I asked them what kind of Christians they are, and they said they are Jehovah's Witnesses, which they had actually not yet said, even though I was pretty sure that's who they were. I told them I have some good friends who are Jehovah's Witnesses, and that I respect them for their strong moral code. Bot the women smiled, as if to say, "Yes! We have a strong moral code!" And then, because I apparently can't leave things alone, added, "But I still oppose proselytizing."

And that's when the women realized she really wasn't going to reach me, and while the woman in back told me to have a nice day, the woman in front asked me for the pamphlet back. Asked me for the pamphlet back? Seriously? I told her I wanted to keep it, that I had plans for it.

The whole conversation took somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes, but I don't think we really communicated anything substantive to one another. Maybe the only substantive thing that happened was that I noticed that the whole point of putting a menorah in the window -- even if it's 4 months after Khanike, as opposed to the mantle or the kitchen table, is precisely so that people on the street will know that you are Jewish. So, in a way, it took the Jehovah's Witnesses coming to the door to remind me of one way that I am a good Jew.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

I mastered Zen while playing in a pile of wood chips

Never Done: I spent an hour playing in a pile of wood chips

I can't honestly vow that I haven't spent an hour in a pile of wood chips before, but if I have, I was probably the age Tabitha is now (18 months) which turns out to be the age at which playing with wood chips is hilarious. Hilarious, I am telling you. It is especially hilarious when you take two fists full of wood chips and then drop them at the same time. Hahahahaha!!!! It is even funnier when you save out one little chip and then drop it a second later. HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! And when you're doing that and then a flock of hyperactive robins swoop past you and scare a squirrel who scatters away, well that isn't so much as hilarious as shocking. (Motionless, startled stare.) But you know what's great for getting over shock? Dropping wood chips!

You know what else is interesting about playing in a wood chip pile with a toddler? People beam at you. They say hi, they ask how old the toddler is, they walk past with benevolent smiles. If they are under 5 years old, they get on the wood pile too, and if they are above 6, they stand nearby and watch, yearning for the days when they also got to while away their hours in wood piles. And if you are the toddler in the mechanized wood pile creche that everyone is watching, the thing that is really amazing is that you ignore all these people, because none of them even comes close to being as interesting as picking up and dropping the wood chips.

Talk about Be Here Now. The closest mide (middah) that mirrors the zen principle of be Here Now is, I think, Diligence: Always find something to do. I am very good at finding things to do, but what I need to work on is being completely focused on what it is that I am doing. Nothing like hanging out with a toddler to remind me what that looks like.