It's so simple to be wise.  Just think of something stupid to say, and then don't say it.     Sam Levenson (1911-1980)

Friday, August 5, 2011

Dog Days

"Dog Days" are the hottest, most sultry days of summer...usually fall[ing] between early July and early September... Dog Days can also define a time period or event that is very hot or stagnant...
[In ancient Rome] Dog Days were popularly believed to be an evil time "when the seas boiled, wine turned sour, Quinto raged in anger, dogs grew mad, and all creatures became languid, causing to man burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies" according to Brady’s Clavis Calendarium, 1813. (Wikipedia)
These are days of tragedy and grief. Syria is in chaos, as the government ravages its people. Floods continue to pound Southern Africa, while in the East children are dying of draught. The Greek economic crisis threatens all of Europe, and fills its own citizens with despair. Growing unemployment, inconsistent health care coverage and budgetary wars threaten the health, and the homes, of millions of Americans. Our own nation's ongoing anger at inaccessible housing has erupted into demonstrations and tent cities. And this morning I awoke to learn that Y, the sweet, strong and healthy 25-year-old son of friends from my teen years, collapsed yesterday -- inexplicably -- of a heart attack. In a few hours from now he will be buried in a Southern California cemetery.

It must be human nature, that among the unfathomable grief on faceless human beings around the world, one young man's death has hit me so hard.

I haven't seen Y since he was a child, but throughout my teenage years, his parents taught me a formative lesson in true hospitality. Time and geography have led me to lose immediate touch with the family for the past few years, though I've thought of them often. I remember his deep dark eyes, his energy, and his siblings. S, his older sister, is a talented writer while younger sister E was always a bright and energetic spark. Together, they were three of the most beautiful, talented, well-rounded and mature children I have encountered. Now they are only two. They did not have to say goodbye.
* * * * *
A few days ago, I thought I was having a bad week. Our beautiful and affectionate cat, barely out of kittenhood, was cruelly mauled to death in the street by neighborhood dogs, most likely ones owned by irresponsible neighbors. In the fallout, the neighborly high following our family's celebration from last month collapsed like a blown-out mine of precious metals; sadness and anger took its place. Much thought, and a carefully-worded neighborhood email followed, whereby I took our dog-owning neighbors to task -- not by name -- and was rewarded with both words of support, and the inevitable rejoinders of denial.

For a few days, the stressful burden of ill will and mutual suspicion pretty much outstripped the sorrow of losing our lovely little feline. But, I thought, Ahhh, such are The Nine Days. "כפרה עליך" (kaPAra aLAyich) as they say. An atonement for past errors, and a gentle reminder to treasure the good things. Our fate is not in our hands.

Now I imagine the family, waking to a morning with no Y, and another, and another. I picture them gathered together, enveloped by their community, crying out in despair, with shock and disbelief filling every corner of the house.
* * * * *
A few months back I was in class on a minor fast day -- Asara b'Tevet -- and my teacher, a convert to Judaism, remarked,
You know, this religion is so fixed on depression. Why do we need so many fast days? Why can't we be adding more holidays and celebrations instead? It's not good for us...
I imagine he knows a thing or two about depressed peoplehood, having both African- and Native American roots. When I think of two nations with more than their share of calamity and maltreatment, these two come to mind.

Thing is, I was kind of torn. On the one hand, he's right. Why do we insist on indulging in sorrow, guilt and mourning, year after year, four times a year, commemorating events some of which are so historically obsolete as to be almost ridiculous. Why, in fact, should we keep Asara b'Tevet on the books, when it commemorates [the beginning of] the destruction of a Temple -- the First Temple -- that has since been both rebuilt and re-destroyed?!

It is easy, even natural, to side with the thinking that suggests this type of mourning is no longer in step with our national timeline. Maybe such harping on the negative even weakens our collective conscience, at a time when we need to be investing all our emotional energies into increasing our sense of resilience. Can wallowing in our collective sorrow really help us?

On the other hand, we've harbor a tendency to hang on to our traditions, obsolete as they might seem, and for the most part this does us more good than harm.
* * * * *
Either way, Tisha b'Av stands apart from the four minor fasts. We don't just grab one day, midyear, and assign it historical importance, long since superseded by subsequent national events. We enter a process of reverse-mourning, and we give ourselves nearly a month to do it, scraping away, little by little, at our every-day comforts until we come to feel some sense of loss.

And yet, despite all these collective efforts, I know I am not alone in saying that most years, it's a real challenge to really make the loss feel tangible. No Temple? No big deal. We've gone without that for nearly two millennia. As for the victims -- the previous generations who died at the hands of the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Romans -- they'd all be long gone by now in any event. How can I learn to feel that loss deeply and personally?

We don't fool ourselves either -- as mourning goes, this is not exactly the Real Deal. Unlike individual mourners, physically demarcated and emotionally isolated from their visitors, on Tisha b'Av we all sit together on the floor, reading out Lamentations for all to hear. When Tisha b'Av ends, we don't isolate ourselves, avoiding haircuts and new clothes and parties. We resume our lives, since we have not, in fact, just lost a mother, a child, a brother.

Unless, G-d forbid, we have.

This Tisha b'Av I will continue struggle, as I do every year, to make our ancient national losses feel personal. But this year, I know, this personally-felt loss will echo the national tragedy it truly is.

May the family be comforted among the mourners of Tzion and Jerusalem.

Keep the balance,


See a previous post on prophets & the Three Weeks.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Nationalism on Their Young Minds

Mommy, I wish I know all the languages. Then I could understand everyone. A brief pause, a puzzled look. And a question: Mommy! am I Israeli or American?

Just when I'm thinking Blondini Boy -- all six years of him -- only has Playmobil and Chaos Faction2 on his mind.

Even now I'm not sure exactly what he was after. Did our recent international influx of family visitors spark geographic, or perhaps linguistic, confusion? Was the very concept of multiple citizenship at odds with his developmental stage and notable tendency toward concrete thinking? Or was I merely underestimating his latent capability for immature existential musings?

I told BBoy he was definitely Israeli, having been born and lived his entire life here in Israel. I emphasized that he was also part American -- and part British, by virtue of his parentage (just to further confuse things), following up with a mandatory footnote, that it is possible to be several things at once, even while you can only live in one place at a time.

He accepted all of that. In other words, I got off easy.

Flash forward, to last Tuesday. J, my work colleague and close friend for over a decade, has rightly insisted that if we don't get ourselves together this week, our breakfast out will have to wait another month until after Ramaddan.

We have a lot to talk about, now that each of us has taken the year off work, to study and recharge....we've missed an awful lot of lunchtime chit-chat. Beyond our common work interests, our kids are of similar ages, and so there are mutual updates and parental wisdom to share, conundrums to analyze and discuss.

I pick up J at her home and forty minutes later we are walking the streets of Jerusalem's historic German Colony heading for my favorite cafe. Once seated, I apologize for having dragged her into such an American venue, but then imagine that for her, being a minority here among the Americans might just be more comfortable.

As always, our conversation tends toward education -- our own studies, the kids' schools -- and our personal and childrearing dilemmas. Her children attend private schools, one secular modeled on the American public school system, the other French Christian with a Muslim majority student body. (Her kids already speak four languages between the two of them).

Together we review pros and cons of separate-sex education, secular education, multi-lingual education, the Education Ministry. Her approach toward nondenominational school prayer comes up, as does my [livid] reaction to my daughter's science teacher's refusal to teach Darwinism because "it conflicts with the Torah" (along with the school principal's support of such behavior on the grounds that "teaching evolution might confuse the girls' spiritual development." (Another time). As always, we found a common interest, and common ground, in every topic.

(For many years J and I worked together in the same department, and from an early stage we began planning our group lesson plans together. I always felt at ease, knowing that her translation of my words would come across exactly as I meant it. If you've ever worked through a translator, you'll understand why this is not something to be taken for granted).

Now here I was, telling J about BBoy's nationality question. Turns out her daughter L, age 8, had recently popped an even bigger one: Mama, do we live in Israel or Palestine?


J answered in Talmudic style, a question for a question. What do you think? Do we live in Israel or Palestine? L thought about it and answered, Palestine, because everyone here speaks Arabic.

J took a deep breath. Then in a brilliant Uncharted Parenting move, J pulled out a map.
I began to describe, place by place, the areas of Arab settlement, and of Jewish settlement. I explained that there had been one war, and then another, and so things shifted, and that, more recently, the Jewish areas expanded until some of them ran into the Arab ones. I pointed out places that were under Israel's jurisdiction ("Israel"), and places supervised by the PA ("Palestine").
Then she repeated L's own question back at her: Where do you think we live? T concluded that she lives in Israel, but goes to school in Palestine (her school is in East Jerusalem).

Put politics aside, as most eight-year-olds tend to do, and this ends up being a pretty precise answer.

I probably don't need to point out the obvious: J lives in two worlds that don't always fit together. She is proud of her Muslim-Arab heritage, proud her family has lived where it has for over ten generations. Yet she appreciates all the good things her state has to offer -- the opportunities, the education, the freedom. J loves Judaism and completed a bagrut in תנ"ך (Bible) and תושב"ע (the Oral Law) and probably knows more about them than I do. Yet if she's at work during the siren on Yom haZikaron (Memorial Day) she finds a private corner in which to sit, so as not to feel she is betraying one part of herself at the expense of the other.

I don't judge J for all of that. I embrace her for trying to find that ephemeral middle ground between sensitivity and dignity, assimilation and self preservation. (I'm trying to find it too, only this time, for the first time, I'm of the majority). Over the years, our parallel perspectives as minority citizens, searching for the common ground, have blessed our friendship with a mutual understanding neither of us has found too easily elsewhere.

J, have a meaningful Ramaddan.

Keep the balance,


Next up: Natural resource privatization issues, out of the mouths of babes.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

It Takes A Village, a Family, and A Whole Lotta Insanity

(That almost rhymes).

Won't make excuses, except for this: Took a year off.

Literally. Took the year off work, off blogging. Returned to the student life and studied something entirely different. No education, no therapy. No hospital.

Turns out, studying midlife is not studying at 19. No night-after-night-awake-until-2am. No running to the library whenever I darn feel like it. Elder Princeski, Always the Imp and
Blondini Boy (who, incidentally, has grown out of those blond curls) need me to look up from those books once in awhile. They can't be expected to understand what's so exciting about all the fine print piling up on the dining table. Even if colorful maps are sometimes involved.

And then, there was the recent Coming of Age Celebration, aka the Bat Mitzvah. (Because we all know how a twelve-year-old is, um, practically an adult. Never mind).

By now a majority of the neighbors have hosted one or more of these events, and this
is what stands out: The child's parents stand up and -- along with happily fawning over their child, and thanking everybody for coming -- praise the community at great lengths, for making the event a reality. It always sounded kind of exaggerated, and I couldn't understand what the big deal was.

Now I really do get it. Elder P & I had this vision, to celebrate at home with a kind of garden-block-party, and my neighbors did every imaginable task to make this thing a reality. An abridged list:
Helping Elder P plan a special Bat Mitzvah tefilla. Sitting with me to plan out the menu, the shopping list, the time table, the program. Hosting our family for a relaxing Shabbat lunch the week before the event. Lending hotplates and water kettles, projector lights and electricity cables. Lending two hours at night, and again the next day -- in the blazing sun --to help That Guy install those lights and electricity cables.
(Pause for breath). Approaching neighbors and asking them to lend all the above (& more), then delivering it to our doorstep. Permitting us to close off the street for the evening. Making salads and fruit plates. Translating and printing Elder P's talk into English so our family could enjoy it. Going out -- at the last minute -- to pick up the food. Taking down the signs after the event (thank you, whoever you are!). Moral support. I know there's more, but I've already forgotten.
One of my neighbors has actually opened a Gama"ch in memory of her father z"l, lending out serving dishes, tablecloths, candlesticks and more so that her neighbors can hold events at home. She came two hours beforehand and set up all the tables, too. What a huge help.

What goes around also comes around. By purchasing our drinks at the makolet (local grocery store) instead of the [less expensive] chain supermarket, we received an offer to store the drinks in his jumbo-fridge until right before the party.

We hired one neighbor to make high-end
desserts, giving her much-needed publicity (and the desserts were fantastic! If you want her number, drop me a line). Another neighbor, all of fifteen years old, is a professional-grade hair stylist who, as you can see, turned Elder P into a true Princess.

E, the son-in-law of friends and a young father raising two young kids while growing his new photography business, was hired to take pictures. We employed yet a fourth friend to provide the entertainment, including individually tailored instruction for the kids and a funny & original juggling performance for all our guests. (Elder P loves juggling, and this was a special surprise in her honor). Three neighborhood teens were hired as kitchen managers and waitresses, and they worked.

We love having such talented friends, and being able to give them our business at such a happy occasion.

And then, there were my parents. The morning of, I sent them a fourteen-item list, Which of these could you help with?, expecting them to chose two or three. They choose ten, and then ran around schlepping stuff from late afternoon until early evening when the party began.

And yes, it was worth it! Elder P had the time of her life, so did the neighbors, and I'm thankful. בשמחות!

Keep the balance,


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Don't Worry, The Blogosphere Is Behind You

RivkA's death has really driven home a point. Yes, the blogosphere really is a community. Of friends, compatriots, supporters, rivals, and everything in between.

On Friday at her shiva -- how odd, and empty, to be in RivkA's home, without her there! -- this topic came up in discussion with her mother and father. Like my own parents, they could not understand at first what would possess a person to write (and especially in RivkA's case, so openly and personally) to a vitual audience, "somewhere out there." After a time, they came to appreciate the regular updates, her shared thoughts, and especially, her very real blogosphere friends.

In RivkA's case, she was a source of information and inspiration to many, many people. Her writing brought people together. As I told her mother on Friday, whenever I read RivkA's blog, I felt the acute presence of others reading alongside me, a tangible community of supporters and friends.

This afternoon I had one of those -- dare I say it -- "Israeli" experiences... and there was Treppenwitz, right there behind me. You can read his whole piece here (recommended), but meanwhile, here's the the part that hit home:

Sadly, when faced with an immigrant making a formal complaint about a perceived insult (even when the insult can't possibly be open to perception and/or interpretation), the default response of many people in this country is, "You must not have understood...", or "That was not my intention...".

This is doubly frustrating for a non-native Hebrew speaker because even in cases where the insult is so glaring as to be beyond misinterpretation, the immigrant is often expected to feign difficulty with the language in order to allow the insulter to climb down from their tree and save face.

Ahh, so true, I nodded as I read along. And so sad, so frustrating. We've all felt this at some point, but for me today's experience took the cake. For the first time in a long time, I felt a tinge of regret for having moved here.

Here I was, standing in front (underneath, really -- it was cranked up on the repair lift) of my decade-old Beloved Renault, the recent victim of an unfortunate but -- thank God -- harmless accident,* with the insurance assessor trying to convince me that he had not listed the obvious damage to the ABS on the insurance claim because I hadn't initially reported it (I had) and maybe I hadn't understood him properly.

Oh uh, Mister Assessor. Now you've done it. Deep breath, short pause. Think of Treppenwitz, and Rev Up Your Engines.

I let the assessor have it. With a capital IT: Don't you dare pull that one. I understood you perfectly. And you know it.

He yelled, I countered (two rounds). He relented. I got the repair approved.

Thank you, David Bogner, for reminding me that I do understand. Perfectly.

Keep the balance,


* Wouldn't ya know it? Two days prior to the accident, I'd signed on a trade-in deal to have someone pay me to take the Beloved Renault off my hands. Murphy's Law, still valid. Or maybe just Freud. Oy.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Goodbye, Our Incredible Friend

We all knew it would happen. Despite your consistently high spirits, your infectious optimism, your belief that giving up was not an option.

This was true long before your diagnosis, and all the more so since.

Who else would manage to turn a course of chemotherapy into a weekly opportunity to meet old friends for a drink? Or continue her job as a swim instructor, while on chemo, because it rejuvenated her? Or take the time each and every week to reach out to her hundreds
(thousands?!) of friends, family, readers and fans.

Like any blogger, I am usually a person of words. Now, it seems, there is nothing to say.... except to ask Why?

The question only echoes back darkly, as I think of your beautiful kids, your supportive husband, continuing on without you. You made it quite clear: Pity is not your way, and faith is always the answer. Oh, to have that kind of clarity!

We were supposed to get together and paint.... just the idea got both of us so excited! It was you, RivkA, who inspired me to write. Now, after nearly a year away from this blog, your death has inspired me to return. You had that kind of strength, encouraging people to do their best, be themselves, reach their goals, believe in God, and tell it like it is.

RivkA, you're gone. We miss you horribly. But know this: Your love and enthusiasm are here to stay.

רבקה בת ישעיה, לכי בשלום.


Photo credits go to That Guy I Married, who succeeded in capturing RivkA's energy and enthusiasm for the camera, at her daughter A's bat mitzvah last June.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Do Good to Feel Good, Part II

Now I'd like to play a couple rounds of Devil's Advocate.

Let's put it on the table. Is there such thing as too much giving? After all, some of us are already helping people. All. The. Time.

We volunteer at the retirement home, we bake for the neighbors. Perhaps we run a little NPO on the side that distributes funds and clothing, or join every other community hesed committee, or run off to a wedding hall in the middle of the night to pick up and distribute the leftover food.

Or maybe we do some or all of the above, PLUS we've found our life's calling in one of those pointedly-named Helping Professions --as a social worker, therapist, nurse or charity office manager. What could be better? We are assured an opportunity to help others, every day, and often in the most moving and meaningful ways. We take care of others' bodies and souls. We sooth mental anguish and relieve financial burdens, advocate for the disenfranchised and restore human dignity. We do all of this without pitying or patronizing.

So is there such thing as helping too much? We love our life's work because it is life-giving, meaningful, significant. We believe our professional role is right and yes, a kind of moral obligation. But we often resent the conditions: Low pay, little recognition, case overload, stressful work environment.

I'm thinking about yet another phenomenon. How do you do it, how can you work here, with such sick kids? someone will query in admiration. Kol haKavod (Bravo!), that's amazing! They don't get it. I can do this work because love this work, and when I'm doing it, my life feels meaningful and significant.

The problem comes later, when I get home. Sometimes it hits me, how sick those kids really are, and I am exhausted. Weighing me down are all the patients I didn't have time to work with. The parents I didn't get back to. That uncomfortable exchange with a short-tempered staff member. The feeling of being constantly on call -- encouraging, empathic, organized and authoritative -- but not too authoritative. These things can all but wash out the day's many successes.

Worse, I often find myself unable to regroup and focus by the time I've finished my commute home. My own kids need me. They need someone to give them lunch and watch their gymnastics practice and blows their noses and help with their math homework. They don't feel my own need to go to the bathroom and then sit down for five minutes, alone, over a hot drink. Whatever went on in my day until now is completely irrelevant. They expect focused, energetic Mommy, ready to go and full speed ahead.

The work itself is not the problem, it's maintaining my strength to give and give, all morning and afternoon, and then give again into the evening. It's keeping up the required enthusiasm at home to do all the day-to-day tasks, with the patience my kids deserve from me.

Sometimes I fantasize leaving for a well-compensated, "normal" office job, or locking myself away in my studio, "arting" around all day. I imagine opening a small craft business, or private therapy work with a limited number of clients. But getting down to it, I know I would only do such a thing if I were to reach the conclusion that the price had gotten too high, that I could no longer keep up both ends of the giving spectrum, and that giving at work was always at the expense of giving at home.

And here's where I have to admit it. For all its difficulties, hospital work gives me a sense of status and accomplishment that, for whatever reason, I cannot always seem to muster at home. Maybe that's the fallout for some of us girls who grew up in the Seventies on Sesame Street and Free to Be... You and Me. Or maybe it's just that at work, I'm an experienced professional, a figure of authority, a source of knowledge and understanding, while at home, I'm "just" Mom.

Their only Mom. Full speed ahead.

Keep the balance,


For more on why we help one another, this is another interesting NYT piece, especially the part about the role of the sclera (whites of the eyes) in human altruistic behavior.

Do Good to Feel Good, Part I

Here it is (again), this time via the NYT: Scientific evidence that giving works.

And let's face it, we know this. We all know it, from the inside. Giving promotes health. Thinking about others promotes health. (Thanks again, Prof K, for your insightful reminder).

The article's examples there are numerous. Here's a personal favorite:
An array of studies have documented this effect. In one, a 2002 Boston College study, researchers found that patients with chronic pain fared better when they counseled other pain patients, experiencing less depression, intense pain and disability.
Anyone who has been chronically ill, or who has spent time among the chronically ill, will readily note that a sick person does not want to be the focus of people's help and attention all the time; she wants to listen to others and be there for them. In other words, she wants to feel normal, and being able to help others restores our sense of normalcy.

Unless you're a celebrity, being the constant focus of others is not a normal state of existence. I'm not convinced it does much good for celebrities either, with their constant complaints of telephoto lenses sneaking ou from behind the trash cans, and all those pop songs lamenting the paparazzi. But heck, it's a living.

Turns out that being stuck in your own misery can lead to somatic harm.
By contrast, being self-centered may be damaging to health. In one study of 150 heart patients, researchers found that people in the study who had more “self-references” (those who talked about themselves at length or used more first-person pronouns) had more severe heart disease and did worse on treadmill tests.
I believe it.

I don't usually do this, honest, but I'm even going out on a limb and referencing Dennis Prager's take on happiness, flippant as it sounds, since I think he's got something too.

(I do take issue with his use of the term moral obligation. I don't usually view the use of antiperspirant as a moral obligation either.... a social obligation, maybe, but moral? An exception might be when working with people, such as those on chemo, who may be exceedingly disturbed or nauseated by strong smells. And on Egged buses during the summer months -- OK, that might just be a moral obligation).

Call it CBT, call it common sense, call it a serotonin-inspired warm fuzzy feeling -- the evidence has long been out there. Actions determine mood, and not the other way round.

Keep the balance,


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"I'm the Oldest Person I Know."

I'm 95 years old, and you know what? That's old.

I'm the oldest person I know.

That's Grandma. As a kid, I can't say we got along. There were some strong opinions involved, some -- shall we say -- incidents. Like the time she called my mother from 100 miles away insisting that we wear sweaters "because it's cold over here." Or the time she entered my room while I was away and straightened it up "just a bit." I wanted to kill her.

Grandma has always held strong opinions about everything. She was into raw foods and organic produce long before the rest of California discovered them. She firmly believed, and continues to believe, that fluoridated water is evil reincarnate, and that women who do not make efforts to "look smart," (that is, dress well and apply make-up) are doing humanity some sort of general disservice.

Through the years, her letter-writing has had me in stitches. There's the time I wrote her from summer camp to report on my recent swimming lessons, and received a reply that she, too, was learning to swim. At age 70. "But," she confided, "I don't like to put my face in the water." (I could relate to that).

And not one of my fellow campmates received, as I did, letters signed with the valuable but ill-timed advice, "Remember to eat lots of organic lettuce!" I neglected to return her counsel with the sad but true reality that at camp we were lucky to get some limp iceberg with our suspiciously-tinted beef patties and soggy fries.

This year, my grandmother is, as she puts it, "really feeling my age." Everything is a process; getting dressed, preparing meals, even -- I assume -- going to the bathroom, although this has yet to come up in conversation. A couple of months back she fell down in her kitchen and, in typical Grandma style, refused to tell anyone about it for fear she'd be dragged to the hospital for endless tests (eventually that is exactly what happened). She's okay now, having rested at home for a short time, after which she systematically rejected the help of every home care nurse and social worker available.

During her recuperation she refused to go outside, for fear she would be spotted using a walker by one of her fellow retirement community-neighbors in her, and subsequently be labeled an old lady.

* * * * *

The other day I asked Grandma for her insights about aging.

Grandma: I don't like old people. Even myself....I have to listen to myself all the time, and I get tired of it. I'm always trying to change things.

Me: What do you mean by that?

G: I would realized what I'm doing, and change what I'm thinking, and reject it.

Me: Like what?

G: Like walking like a duck. I reject it. Like being critical about people. Things really aren't that important, you know? I'm trying to resist some of the earmarks of old people.

I once read in an old copy of New Scientist, a British popular science weekly, that neurological imaging at different stages of life has shown that older people have a tendency to "mellow out" over time, not getting as worked up neurologically about those little things that get under the skin of most the rest of us. In other words, over time, older people gain perspective, at the most basic neurological level.

Sometimes, after a frustrating conversation with Grandma, my family will say, "Oh, she's acting like an stubborn old person again." But I'm not so convinced. No question, she's still stubborn, way beyond the rest of us, but she's always been like that. If anything, she's calmed down a bit over the years.

She's not acting old -- she's acting Grandma.

If you'd asked me as a child whether my grandmother would ever mellow out, I wouldn't have answered positively. I wouldn't describe her as mellow now. Despite her refusal to receive help, for the most part her obstinate behavior benefits her. She's already lost some of her mobility, much of her eyesight, and most of her friends to old age. But when she tells me she's gained a new perspective on herself and others, I believe her. She just wants her body, and her life, to stay just the way they are. Don't we all?

(Get to know Grandma a bit better in Imagine the Alternatives and At Least I Can Explain Two Tin Cans).

Keep the balance,


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Long Overdue -- A Day in Their Life

(This piece is from back in August. My apologizes for the lengthy post gap, and my thanks to you, loyal readers, for bearing with me).

When in London, we like to visit friends, and one family in particular who we're pretty sure we won't be able to see on our side of the world, since they rarely travel outside of England.

Their first-born, D, is a handsome, dark-haired boy with huge brown eyes, who came into the world with an exceedingly rare condition that has left his mind stranded in early infancy, even as his body continues to grow. On our last visit, when D was five, they shared with us one of his recent accomplishments -- reaching forward to push a large button on a musical toy. Now he is seven and he is much the same, only bigger and heavier.

Our time with them this afternoon was brief, which was really too bad, but during that two-hour visit I began to understand a little more about a few aspects of their lives. Here are some of the "simple" things, things I'd barely thought about before now.

Recycling. I offered to take a couple of glass bottles out to the curbside bins, and casually remarked that I wished Israel also had a curbside recycling program. Our friend, D's mother, pointed out that since cardboard was added to their borough's list, only a few months before, their lives had gotten a bit easier. Previously, they disposed of all those carton containers housing D's special feeding and care supplies only by dividing them among their neighbors' waste bins, since London's notoriously strict waste collection laws require that all items fitwithin the bin, or else forgo collection.

Shabbat. As D's body grows, he gains weight but not strength, and his parents can no longer lift him with ease. Several rooms in their house have been fitted with ceiling tracks for an electric hoist system to aid them in day-to-day care for D. But the hoists cannot be operated on Shabbat, nor can they be fitted with a time switch, since their control requires precise adjustments in real time, or D could be crushed. If they exchange the electric hoist for a hydrolic one (their health plan will only fund one), they solve the Shabbat problem but are stuck with an awkward manual one seven days a week. (One potential solution? Ebay...).

Unplanned "surprises." D and his family have known many good days in a row, days in which D can enjoy his classmates' company, bang away on his keyboard, and lie peacefully while his siblings play around him. And then comes the now long-expected unexpected: nonstop seizures that can last through day and night, leaving D exhausted and confused, and his parents feeling exhausted and helpless. It is just awful watching your child suffer, his mother writes me, and D clearly suffers.

Food and drink. D has dysphagia and struggles to swallow. All his liquids must be mixed with starch until they form a paste, to prevent them ending up down his windpipe. All foods must be pulverized, and even then he struggles to consume enough calories, and there are days when he suffers seizures and cannot eat at all. During these times he receives his nutrition via a PEG directly into his stomach, up to four times a day.

A day off. If our friends want to go away for the weekend, or even for the day, they must book hospice care for D in advance. Since hospice costs £400 - 1000 per diem, they must remain within their sponsored allotment of 20 days a year. (Last year it was 30; just another microcosmic fall-out of the market implosion). Twenty days of respite sounds like a lot, until you start to do the math:

One weekend = 3 days of hospice

Since any trip they take requires setting up D at the hospice care (half a day, plus/minus) and picking him up (another half a day), that's nearly one full day, already gone. One short trip abroad would use up half their annual allotment. (And yes, each of them has family abroad).

I haven't even touched on their morning routine --morning time, school travel, bath time, bed time -- since I don't know much about those things. Our conversation touched on other, "regular" issues, like our satisfaction level [medium-to-low] with our respective kids' education systems. (They have other, "normal" children and work hard to make sure these children lead "normal" lives, inasmuch as the siblings of special children live normal lives).

These friends are some of the brightest people I know. They are well-educated, balanced, hard-working, and kind. They have family for moral support, some extra help at home, and a hard-earned familiarity with "the system." But this is their reality, every day, and it is exhausting. Sometimes, when I feel my own exhaustion at the end of a long morning of work and an even longer afternoon of whiny children, I think of them. I don't know how they do it. But they do it.

If, despite the crash, you still have a few shekels / dollars / pounds to spare and would like to donate them to a worthy cause, please consider a respite program such as Shalva, a rehab hospital such as Alyn, or any similar organization -- there are hundreds -- you feel is worthwhile.

Keep the balance,


Saturday, September 26, 2009

Opening Up

Took a too-long blog break -- this has part of my excuse. Just jump there, and jump back -- it'll only take a second. As for the rest, we have a lot of catching up to do.

Meanwhile, here we are again, 24-hour countdown to Yom Kippur, the Gates of Heaven are nearly open, and with all its good timing, the Night-Blooming Cereus is, as well.

Once a year, about nine p.m., it shares its beauty with its nocturnal compatriots, and just three hours previous to this writing, here it is:

(Both photos copyright the family photographer, i.e. That Guy I Married)

Our neighbor L-C was nice enough to give us a call so we wouldn't miss the annual blooming on her front porch.... and by now it has already closed.

(I was impressed at the timing, then did a quick search noted -- with irony -- that a primary association with this flower has something to do with Krishna worship in India. The timing's still pretty cool though, don't you think?)

Just a simple thought, coming into our Day of Repentence. Last week during class break, a fellow student approached me with a question:
Why should I bother fasting again this year? I know that right after Yom Kippur I'm just going back to all the things I usually do -- not keeping Shabbat, and all that. So what good will it do for me to fast?
She is relatively young, in her mid-twenties, and grew up in a religious household, in the religious school system here in Israel. She no longer identifies as a religious person but remains close with her family.

As in keeping with the tradition, I answered her question with a question: What's the connection between not keeping Shabbat next week, and keeping Yom Kippur this week?

I was convinced, without knowing why, that the two are not inherently linked, at least not on every level, but at the time I couldn't explain it in a way that satisfied either of us.

Today, leafing through Al ha-Teshuva, a text based on lectures given by Rabbi Yosef B. Soloveichik, I found a more exact answer. Rav Soloveichik talks a lot about the individual versus the Klal, the collective. While each individual certainly bears responsibility for his or her own actions and atonement process, there is a parallel process that is the jurisdiction the collective, which, according to the Rav, is an entity with an identity in and of itself.

It is up to the individual to consider him or herself a part of Klal Yisrael, and one way to achieve kapara (atonement) on Yom Kippur is to be a part of this collective -- what he calls the "אני קבוצי," "communal I." In his words (my translation):
We identify with the congregation of Israel, are molded and merged into it, we are made one with it -- and through this, we become worthy of the atonement that it [the congregation] is worthy of (p. 77).
He asks whether the atonement of Yom Kippur is that of the individual, or of the collective, and goes on to explain that the answer is, in fact both. The collective gives us a power of atonement, distinct from our individual efforts, and so (as I later wrote my classmate), as long as you consider yourself a part of the community, on whatever level, your fasting along with everyone is still worth something.

גמר חתימה טובה / Gmar Hatima Tova.

May we all be inscribed for life, blessings, health, and new openings leading to new beginnings.


Sunday, July 19, 2009


In a few more days we will overstuff our suitcases and head for home.  The kids have been asking, begging, really -- When are we coming home?  They miss their friends, and the ease of access to those friends.  They miss our animals.  So do I.

I am torn.  I want to get back to normalcy, to routine -- not that summer vacation is the time for that, but never mind.  I miss my friends, our neighbors.  Reading all the latest "ideological conversations" (in the words of one neighbor) via community  listserv does not quite satisfy.

There are things here I will miss.
The cool weather, and the rain.  
Public parks, open farmland, trees.  
The convenience of buses, trains, and the Underground.   
People who wait patiently while others disembark from buses, trains and the Underground.  
The Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, the National Gallery.  
Every type of bird in the garden.  Squirrels.
Electric sockets with built-in switches.  
What I will not miss:  Histrionic headlines preceding dumb-downed, hyperbolic newspaper pieces that preempt rational analysis and deter all optimism.  

There are real reasons for worry here.  Swine flu is spreading, a few have died.  Thousands are ill but most will recover after a few days and without hospitalization.  Newspaper headlines only inflame the panic. So when a young man gone missing in Katoomba, Australia was found alive and healthy after nearly two weeks in the wilderness, I took that as encouraging, hopeful, a reason for national celebration.   

Yet a Kew station news poster screamed, "DAD CHASTISES SON FOR HIKING ALONE!"  I mean, really. What a lost opportunity.  I see this type of thing posted on mortar boards, morning and evening, and think, Hey, Londoners, why do you do it to yourselves?  The constant cloud cover isn't enough? 

Not much balance there.


Friday, July 3, 2009

Meetingplace / Marketplace

The short flight had been uneventful.  As we disembark, Blondie Boy waves a casual Shalom to the two youngish ground crewmen assigned to monitor passenger progression from plane to gate.  I try to focus his awareness to the idea that from now on, for the next few weeks, he must speak English to those around him.  The next day, in the Brent Cross shopping mall, Elder Princeski wonders if we will encounter any Israelis here.   My response -- Just keep your ears open! -- is cut short by a mother speaking Hebrew to her two kids as they cross our path toward the escalator.

Brent Cross is a multicultural hub;  families from everywhere, kids of all skin tones.  Women in robes, dresses, headscarves in a spread of colors both bright and drab.   An endless flow of mother tongues, alongside English delivered in multiple cadences.  And so many Jews, they barely glance at one another in any attempt for recognition.   My own moderate headscarf does not register a perceptible glance from anyone, and I feel a sort of relativity effect, an at-oddness with both the bare-headed, spaghetti strap world on my left, and the thoroughly wrapped opacity on my right.  Neither covering, nor lack of one, exposes the ideas and beliefs within the minds around me.

If I were a white Christian male here, I would feel left out, slightly noteworthy, a minority. Perhaps this rainbow effect now means the white majority no longer feels comfortable coming here.  Perhaps it no longer exists, or never did.

At home I sometimes joke about retail therapy, the occasional -- and temporary -- pick-me-up for an emotional trying day at work.   Abroad, it has already become both a chore, albeit an enjoyable one, and an opportunity.  Elder P taking mental notes on the people around her, asking few questions while, I can assume, sitting tight on others which will surface eventually. She's an observant kid, she knows how to make comparisons, and one day soon knowing the answers will become more urgent.

Meanwhile, my headspace is still lingering back at home, ruminating over its own troubled comparisons.  If, here, those people wearing head coverings are drawing any suspicion, I cannot feel it, although they themselves might.  

The marketplace has always been a meeting place, and no less now than before, among our skylights and window dressings and vast air-conditioned spaces.  Retail as the great commons, or commonality.  I enjoy being here, and even knowing such a place exists, whether I come to purchase, or to find comfort and captivation in the purchasers.

Keep the balance,


Monday, June 15, 2009

Have the Answers, But Not Telling (At Least For Now...)

 brought us a familiar observation here in her comment.  We, too, have gotten some really doozy-questions aimed our way during car rides, or alternatively, on our way out the door towards a car ride.

My favorite?  A couple years ago our Virgin Guinea Pig mysteriously gave birth.  OK, not so mysteriously;  unknown to us, she'd been pregnant when we bought her.  

Turns out, guinea pig gestation is much longer than that of most rodents and lagomorphs. Compare:  hamster gestation is 15 to 18 days, rabbit gestation is about 30 days, while that of the guinea pig can reach 72 days -- that's over two months.   The difference becomes clear when you see how guinea pigs come into the world:   fully formed, fur-covered, open-eyed, and munching on solids within a day.

So when Elder Princeski called me in happy-hysteria, MOMMY, THERE ARE BABIES IN THE GUINEA PIG CAGE!, naturally this became a source of great excitement.  

A few minutes later, it also became a source of great confusion.

Always the Imp (then age 4):  Mommy, how could the guinea pig have babies without an Abba?

Me:  There must have been an Abba with her in the store, before we bought her, but then we brought her home and it took a long time for the babies to come out.

Always:  (Pause for thought).  Mommy, how did the babies get inside the mommy?  
Me: (Wasn't expecting that one yet).  Well... (Stalling for time.  She's only four, I mean, really). 

Always:  Is it true that the doctor puts the baby through the mommy's vulva, into her tummy?  (Yes, she already knew one V-word, way back then.)

Me:  (To self)  Only if the Mommy is married to a doctor.  
(To Always)  Well, it's something like that.  But it's kind of complicated, and you know, we really are supposed to be going out now.

Always (looking me straight in the eye):  It's okay, Mommy.  You don't have to explain everything.  Just tell me the important parts!

Oy vey....

Keep the balance,