Sunday, June 14, 2015

Bar Mitzvah in Boulder a Rocky Mountain high

Snow-capped peaks, crystal-clear lake at RMNP.
I was out west recently, in and around Boulder mostly, for a fun and festive weekend. The focus of the trip can pretty much be summed up with a joke. Four middle-aged Jews from Atlanta found themselves in an SUV with a Reconstructionist rabbi, high atop a mountain, after it began to rain.

Here's the punchline. When the storm passed we all made our way to a nearby amphitheater with a million-dollar view and took part in my grand-nephew Josh's Bar Mitzvah, a delightful and emotionally satisfying affair.

Truth to tell, the entire weekend was memorable. It began with dozens of friends and family winging their way to Denver, then spending a few days exploring the ups and downs of the region -- it's not called "Rocky Mountain High" for nothing! A few hearty souls headed south to Pike's Peak and the Garden of the Gods; others journeyed north to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park.

The trekkers zigged and zagged their way around hairpin turns and staggering vertical inclines that topped out at over 15,000 feet or so. They were rewarded with breathtaking vistas filled with snow-topped mountain peaks and verdant meadows, the occasional antelope and squadrons of marmots.

The less adventurous -- that would be me and the always lovely Miss Wendy, my brother Gary and his wife JoAnn -- stayed busy checking out the hippie vibe of Boulder and the nearby community of Louisville, the Bar Mitzvah boy's hometown and a community often found on lists of the best places to live in the U.S.because of its schools, historic downtown and 1,800 acres of open space.

We wandered about the foothills outside both communities and visited the restaurants, coffee shops, retails stores and boutiques that filled the downtown areas. We serendipitously stumbled across a Jewish festival that drew a thousand or so folks to the Pearl Street Market, a happening pedestrian Mall in Boulder and even managed to make it out to Celestial Seasonings' factory for a tour and tasting of the company's iconic herb-infused teas. Little known fact: There's no actual "tea" in most of Celestial Seasonings herb-infused teas.Go figure!

Amy (l-r), Josh, Rabbi Yitzhak Nates and Greg 
But I digress. We eventually made it to Josh's Bar Mitzvah -- even got a tiny taste of the mountain scenery, both its joys and thrills -- high atop a peak, at the end of a long and twisting road.

I like to think of the pristine setting we discovered, at least on this day, as the "Shul of the Great Outdoors," an amphitheater chiseled out of rock, overlooking Boulder and the campus of the university of Colorado.

Mother Nature, unfortunately, wasn't cooperating -- at least initially. She greeted us with cloudy skies, falling temperatures and a petulant drizzle. We found comfort -- and the Reconstructionist rabbi -- in our rental car; spent a few moments saying howdy and playing Jewish geography, then collectively prayed for a miracle.

Someone was listening. The rain stopped, the sky cleared and 150 or so guests made themselves comfy as Rabbi Yitzchak Nates offered up a warm welcome and began the service.

I've attended hundreds of B'nai Mitzvot over the years, many of them featuring production values rivaling those found on Broadway, others filled with the sort of attention to detail and precision performances you might witness on the stage at Carnegie Hall. Some of these coming-of-age services and parties were joyful and uplifting, some felt spiritually adrift and emotionally flat. 

Josh's Bar Mitzvah was unique, sort of a jazzy riff on Judaism that -- at least metaphorically -- could have easily found a home in Newport or New Orleans; a laid-back affair that touched all the bases in a soft and gentle fashion. It left me feeling spiritually centered and emotionally enriched.

The Bar Mitzvah boy and his parents, Amy and Greg, set the tone at the late-afternoon gathering, standing together on a makeshift bima, sharing the instant when Josh stepped into manhood as he was called to the Torah. It was an emotional moment and the setting was perfect.

The sky had turned a pale blue as the sun began its slow descent behind a massive range of mountains. Mother Nature, perhaps chastened by her earlier misstep, offered up a double rainbow that spilled across the horizon, a cosmic apology that touched my heart. 

That's not to say all was perfect. Some family health and relationship issues had most everyone in a melancholy and reflective mood. A "white elephant" was stomping about the amphitheater and it took a couple of youngsters to quiet the beast.

Special gift from Mother Nature
The Torah portion touched on Moses stepping up and doing the right thing, being both courageous and fearless when called by God. Yitz -- that would be Rabbi Nates -- asked if anyone could recall such a moment in their own lives.

My first thought was, "bad move, rabbi! Nobody is going to stand up in front of a bunch of strangers and bare their souls." I was wrong.

After a moment, a boy stepped out, introduced himself, then set about telling us of his battle with leukemia when he was a baby. Ian mentioned how tough the disease had been on his family; details about hospital visits and medical miracles and his fight to stay alive. He not only won the battle, but the war; and now he was here on this day, with Josh, happy to be alive!

A second boy, Dylan, then took center stage. He took yet another whack at the elephant when he announced that his parents had divorced several years earlier. Life, he made clear, had changed for him but, after a time, he came to understand that there simply was a new normal, that life continued and it could be good. After all, he said, he now was friends with Josh.

I don't know the Hebrew word for "grace", but I'm pretty sure I felt it after these two brave kids opened their hearts.

The ceremony was drawing to a close when Yitz called up a dozen or so of Josh's friends, all members of their school's choir. I expected them to close the service with the traditional singing of "Eyn Keyloheynu". Silly me!

In keeping with the tenor of the service and the afternoon, the kids found a much more meaningful and jazzy fashion to end the Bar Mitzvah, offering up a memorable rendition of Bill Wither's 1972 hit, "Lean on Me"!

It was rousing and delightful, a great way -- on this day, in this place -- to add an exclamation point to a perfect ceremony. It was also a nice reminder that sometimes in our lives, despite pain and sorrow, "We know that there's always tomorrow"!

Monday, March 30, 2015

What's the big fuss about passing a little stone?

Show and tell: Yep, that's the stone, up close and personal!
After a recent kidney stone attack, several folks asked me what it felt like to pass a stone. Not a big deal, right? After all, it's just a tiny bit of calcium, jarringly mixed with other stuff, often no larger then a few grains of sand. All true, except for one important fact: The tiny stone, on its voyage through the urinary tract, has to make its way through the ureter, an itsy-bitsy tunnel between the kidneys and bladder.

The passage is painful. Very painful! Here's a guide to just how painful it can be.

You know how when you were a kid and you lost your balance while riding your bike, skinning up your knees and elbows? Stung like a sum-bitch, remember? Kidney stones are worse.

You know when you were in college and you and your buddy got blitzed and you were walking back to the dorm and instead of walking around a nearby security fence you decided it would be a good idea to leap over it and you landed on your shoulder and the nurse in the infirmary told you it was dislocated and you had to walk around for a week with your arm in a sling? Bummer! Kidney stones are worse.

You know how you sometimes absentmindedly rip open an envelope and a tiny wedge of paper slits into your finger, drawing a tiny bead of blood? Ouch! Kidney Stones are worse.

You know how you pull yourself out of bed when nature calls in the middle of the night; you stumble off toward the bathroom and, oops, crack your shin against a nearby bureau? Jeez, that smarts! Kidney stones are worse.

You know how when you're pounding a nail into a board and it seems like one good whack and the job will be done; so you let loose with a final wallop and, unfortunately, misjudge the target and hit your thumb? Oh, Nellie! Kidney stones are worse.

You know how you're in the zone, weed-whacking away on a sunny day when the plastic line whips around your ankle for an instant, causing a nasty cut and a neat circle of blood to puddle at your feet? Now that's gotta hurt, right? Kidney stones are worse.

Recall that day when you were atop a 10-foot ladder and you needed to take just one more step to reach that little leaf atop the hedge you were cutting, and the ladder gave way, and you bounced onto a nearby juniper bush before your noggin bounced against the driveway, and you were rushed to the emergency room with scrapes, bruises and a concussion? Oy! Kidney stones are worse.

And if you're of the female persuasion, recall how when in the delivery room you're sweating and pushing away mightily, attempting to get seven pounds of pinkness and hair out of your womb and through the birth canal; and after one last heave and sense of relief -- and pressure -- you hear the bawling of your babe, then hear the doctor exclaim: Surprise, you're having twins!? Kidney stones are worse.

So, the next time you hear of a friend having an attack, you might toy with the idea of smashing your thumb with a hammer or simply banging your head against a nearby wall to share the experience. Who knows, after hearing of your show of solidarity, your friend might be willing to share their pain meds! Then again, probably not.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Love, loss and hope

On a recent gray and dreary day, the lovely Miss Wendy and I thought it a perfect time to visit our neighborhood multiplex cinema. We ended up seeing a horror flick that still has me rattled.

That's all a bit surprising, since I was raised on a jarring mix of films featuring werewolves and vampires; stumbling and bumbling mummies and fantastical blobs; the Frankenstein monster and a wide assortment of aliens. In recent years, I've even sat through some really frightening misadventures featuring flying superheroes, massive explosions and ubiquitous car chases.

Of course all these Hollywood creatures and creations were ephemeral, mostly filled with special effects and comic bogeymen hiding about in the dark.

"Still Alice", meanwhile, is a film that has little to do with make believe monsters and demons. The spooky stuff it offers up is scarily grounded in reality. It tells the story of Alice Howland, a middle-aged professor of linguistics at Columbia University, who is bright and beautiful and, unfortunately, slowly losing her mind to early-onset Alzheimer's disease.

Julianne Moore won the Best Actress Oscar earlier this year for her quietly moving and point-on portrayal of Alice, capturing her intelligence and lust for life that is achingly lost as her mind and memories wither away like a flower wilting in the noon-day sun.

The first hint of something gone terribly wrong in Alice's perfect life -- she's smart and lovely, has a wonderful job and a beautiful family -- is when she ever so slightly stumbles about in search of a word while giving a lecture. Only days later she's losing her way when out on a daily jog, soon enough forgetting the names of friends and family and misplacing her cell phone in the fridge.

In a world turned upside down, Alice finds herself taking baby steps in reverse, losing all the special qualities and unique experiences that had once defined her charmed and special life. Her family watches in quiet horror, trying to figure out how best to continue living in a world now frighteningly askew.

Their choices and decisions, both good and bad, are the stuff of life, an aching reality captured in Alice's slow descent into a mindless hell. Ever so quickly, the third act is upon us, and even quicker yet, it all dissolves to white.

Lydia, Alice's youngest daughter (Kristen Stewart, a jarring blend of anger and defiance, mixed with  love and strength) takes center stage, speaking a jumble of words that, after a time, morph into a lyrical monologue of hope.

I was so taken with the moment that I spent a few minutes on the web and discovered the scene was borrowed from Tony Kushner's "Angels in America": "And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles and formed a web, a great net of souls ... Nothing's lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we've left behind, and dreaming ahead."

Lydia asks Alice if she understands and Alice, staring off in dazed befuddlement, becomes reanimated -- if only for a moment -- and manages to say "love ... it's about love."

It's a somewhat satisfying, if melancholy ending to a sad and melancholy film. It also, at least for me, had the ring of truth.

Five years ago my mother was lost and stumbling along the road that "Still Alice" explores. After a couple of years of steady decline, her last days were spent in a kind of suspended animation -- gone, but still here; mute, dazed and befuddled.

I often stopped by the nursing home where she was living and helped feed her if I was around for lunch or dinner. On one particular day, I managed to get her to eat several spoonfuls of some sort of pureed goo, then handed off the chore to a nearby aide.

As I stood to leave, my mother glanced up at me and, after weeks of silence, managed to say, "I love you."  They were the last words I ever heard her speak.

So I'm thinking Alice had it right; it's about love. I'm also thinking that Lydia got it right when she shared the words of Tony Kushner: "Nothing's lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we've left behind, and dreaming ahead."

Friday, February 27, 2015

Remembering the day I was contacted by Mr. Spock

Live long and prosper: Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock
Most everyone knows the story of Mr. Spock, aka Leonard Nimoy, coming up with the Vulcan greeting based on what he recalled seeing as a youngster attending High Holiday services with his grandfather.

Years later, it was that memory, he said, that led to his developing the iconic gesture – hand held out in front of his face, the middle and ring fingers spread apart in what is now a very familiar pose.

The four-word greeting, almost always uttered by Mr. Spock in his oh-so emotionless manner, also nicely echoes the Priestly Blessing – “Live long and prosper.”

Lenoard Nimoy managed to do both. He died Thursday from end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He was 83.

About all I have to add is a bit of shameless name dropping.

Several years ago, when I was still working for the place with the printing press, I wrote a news brief about a little controversy brewing in the local Jewish community. Apparently some rabbis were upset with a new art exhibit at the Jewish community center, featuring nude photos of women draped in religious garb – tallis, tefillin – and not much else.

The exhibit was drawn from a book of photography, Shekhina, created by, you guessed it, Leonard Nimoy. Some critics found the photos revolutionary, others salacious. Most in the Orthodox community were outraged and demanding that the JCC shut down the exhibit and, if possible, beam Mr. Spock far, far away.

The following morning, when I checked my e-mail, I had a note from an LNimoy asking if I was interested in hearing the real story of the Shekhina. In utter amazement I realized that, well, Mr. Spock was trying to reach me.

After jumping over a few minor logistical hurdles, I eventually hooked up with the Vulcan on the Left Coast and had a delightful conversation that became the focus of an expansive feature story about his life, art and the genesis of the Vulcan greeting. I recall Mr. Nimoy telling me in detail how he sat next to his grandfather as a child, enthralled by the pageantry of the High Holiday services, especially the moment when the Kohanim blessed the congregation.

The rest, as they say, has become boob-tube history and Trekkie lore! On a personal note, it was also pretty cool talking to an actor I first spotted on the small screen as Spock in the late 1960s in the TV room of my frat house in Athens.

A footnote. After much give and take, the executive director of the local JCC announced at the time that he had spoken with all interested members of the Jewish community and would be taking their views into account as he decided the future of the Shekhina exhibit. Apparently he was still trying to figure out how best to handle the issue when the show finished its scheduled run six weeks later.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Working, playing and a peek-a-boo surprise

Kodak moment: Bailey Boo and Pops make two
It was one of those special moments, the instant when Bailey first took hold of my hand and tottered about like a drunken sailor. She has yet to fully find her sea legs, but is gamely attempting to push her way into the future.

She cruises about these days, lifting herself up, holding onto anything handy -- a table or shelf, bedroom wall or pile of boxes. It's all about getting from here to there, pushing and pulling and grabbing hold of the moment.

It's tough work, this leaping forward and figuring out the sights, sounds and logistics of life. After all, she's only 16 months old. But Bailey is a happy warrior, laughing and giggling her way around obstacles, gleefully offering up a word or two of gibberish that has recently started making sense.

The road is clear. The future beckons.

There's much to be learned by watching a baby. If lucky, the game begins with health and a little wealth; enough stuff, at least, to keep the focus on the natural and important bits of living -- eating, sleeping and pooping! Bailey's now exploring walking and talking; each day filled with something new and amazing.

So if you're in the game and have a baby around the house, it's an incredible and joyful journey. It can also be peek-a-boo surprising. I'll explain.

Just last weekend, the lovely Miss Wendy and I managed to spend some quality time with Bailey, a day filled with tottering around the house, sliding and gliding and giggling with glee. The plan was for Bubbe and me to watch over Bailey while Lauren and Josh had a night free.

After feeding and watering the baby, reading books and singing songs, playing with blocks and dolls and phones and remotes -- hey, anything with buttons and lights is in play -- standing up and sitting down and rolling about for an hour or so, it was time to put on our jammies and go to sleep. Yeah!

This is probably a good place to mention that playing -- lots of playing -- is a good thing. Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. It's really the work of childhood. At least that's the thinking of Fred Rogers -- yes, that Mr. Rogers!

I wholeheartedly agree; but I digress.

Bailey, as she is want to do, cried out for a second or two after being gently tossed into her crib; then she rolled onto her tummy, found her thumb and a comfy corner and lightly floated away on a metaphorical cloud.

Here's another observation. There's probably nothing more stressful then a fussy youngster; and there's probably nothing more comforting then a happy, sleeping baby. After all, when Bailey is happy, everyone is happy.

And so it went for the next 12 hours or so, until night gave way to the lengthening and lingering shadows of morning. Wendy and I momentarily pushed aside the light, then grudgingly gave in to the demands of life, stretching and yawning and listening for the morning song of our grandchild next door.

But all was quiet -- too quiet! The sun was rising well above the horizon and Bailey had yet to cry out. It was a good hour passed her usual wake-up call and for an instant a seed of panic took hold of our hearts.

We wiggled out of bed and padded quickly to the nearby nursery, ever so gently pushing back the door. Light streamed into the room and I could spot a corner of the crib, but no sign of Bailey. I pushed the door a bit wider and still no sign of her. The seed was growing

Another shove, swinging the door fully open, and I found myself face-to-face with my granddaughter. Bailey stood with her arms atop one corner of the bed, her head resting comfortably on her hands, a little angel, just about perfect in all the ways that matter. She might have been resting their in regal repose for only a moment, perhaps an hour or more. A look of bemused indifference spilled across her features. Our tardiness was forgiven.

We stared at one another for an instant longer and then Bailey smiled, a gap-tooth grin that I took to mean good morning and where the heck have you been. The day was newly born and grand adventures rested mightily on the horizon. Life beckoned and time was wasting.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

New York, New York, it's a helluva town ...

So yet again the lovely Miss Wendy and I were in the Big Apple last week, enjoying the sights, sounds and, yes, even the frigid weather. Hey, it's the one time each year that I have the opportunity to wear a really heavy coat, a scarf and gloves. Cover up just right, and even when it's sleeting, you just might manage to feel toasty and warm while looking cool in water-resistant basic black!

And so it was that Wendy and I found ourselves high up in the balcony of the Lyric Theatre on 42nd Street, waiting out the final minutes before the curtain went up for "On the Town," a glorious revival of the happening musical that first hit Broadway during the waning days of World War II.

Those of us of a certain generation will recall the movie version of the show, starring Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin; focusing on the ups, downs and conquests of a trio of sailors on a 24-hour leave in the Big Apple.

Wendy and I had, in fact, been in the city for several days and, in a fashion, had been playing out the touristy bits of the show; making it uptown and down, even riding in a "hole in the ground", living out the frenetic tone set in the show's signature number:

New York, New York, a visitor's place,
Where no one lives on account of the pace,
But seven millions are screaming for space.
New York, New York, it's a visitor's place!

Indeed, a visitor's place! Have I mentioned the food?

Wendy and I once again managed to eat our way across Manhattan, adding a few new and nicer restaurants -- Le Marais, a kosher steakhouse in midtown and Rafale, an Italian ristorante in the village -- to our usual stops at delis offering up a smorgasbord of Jewish delights: matzo ball soup and mushroom barley; corned beef and pastrami; chopped liver, lox and bagels; knishes, kugel and kasha varnishkes! If you have to ask, well, let's just say kasha is a Jewish delicacy and leave it at that!

Now pass the Rolaids or, better yet, Bromo-Seltzer!

Somewhere deep in our gluttony, we managed to push back our dinner plates and make it to several Broadway musicals. Aside from "On the Town," we tapped our tootsies at "Wicked" and "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder".

What lingers about most when thinking of these two shows is the final number in "Wicked" leading into intermission, "Defying Gravity". As some of you may recall, Elphaba, the lovely and talented Caroline Bowman, tells us that it's time for her to trust her instincts and "leap," time to defy gravity.

And, wow, does she soar, high above the stage and audience. It's one of those transcendent moments in theater when most everything -- the music, singing, lights and special effects -- blend together splendidly, offering up a fantasy that momentarily springs to life.

Another such moment took hold at the Lyric Theater, seconds after the lights dimmed but a moment before the curtain went up for "On the Town." As I mentioned earlier, Wendy and I were high above the stage, surrounded by tourists and locals, folks from around the world and down the block; all of us settling in for a little fun and frothy entertainment.

The front of the stage was covered with an American flag, a huge piece of artwork that I thought in some fashion might be linked to the red, white and blue vibe of the show -- you know, sailors out and about in search of fun and romance!

With little fanfare, the full orchestra began playing the national anthem -- yes, the U.S. National Anthem! I looked about, a bit puzzled, and spotted folks around me looking around, confused and uncertain how to react. Was this part of the show? Should we stand?

One by one, then row after row, people began rising, then singing. The orchestra played with gusto and, taken with it all, the audience responded. After only a moment, the Star Spangled Banner filled the theater, the acoustics catching the lyrics and tossing them about, a chilling spectacle that built on itself. The final words, "land of the free ... and the home of the brave," hung lightly in the air as the room went absolutely quiet, then burst into spontaneous cheers.

The flag lifted, the show began and five minutes into the production we were lost in the music and lyrics of  Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green as we learned that "the Bronx is up, but the Battery's down ... people ride in a hole in the ground ... New York, New York ... it's a helluva town."

And so it is!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Two weeks at sea: Booze, babes and a spiritual epiphany

After a rough few days, the sea grew inexplicably calm.
I was lost in a world created by John Grisham, deep into his latest novel and paying little attention to my last day at sea. The always lovely Miss Wendy and I were nestled comfortably in a cozy corner of the Brilliance of the Seas, enjoying the final leg of a two-week journey that started in Boston and would end the next day in Tampa.

Our little holiday swept us -- and a few thousand other passengers from around the world -- along the eastern coast of the U.S., into the warm and quiet waters of the Caribbean. We spent restful days sailing around a dozen or so islands just north of South America, stopping briefly at ports in St. Kitts and St. Lucia, Barbados, Curaçao and Aruba.

I did mention there was booze, right? And babes! Okay, truth to tell, most of the ship's passengers -- including the babes -- were born when Truman was in the White House, Frank Sinatra was atop all the musical charts, the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn and the "Cold War" was warming up!

Let's just agree it was a "mature" crowd that was out and about and enjoying the sun and tropical breezes, maneuvering our way around the massive ship filled with twists and turns and decks of steps. The getting from here to there was almost always worth the effort, even for folks using canes, walkers or motorized scooters!

I did mention there was booze, right?

On deck 11 of the Brilliance was a massive buffet, the Windjammer, that magically morphed from breakfast to lunch to dinner each day, the cherry on our holiday sundae. Below decks there were additional restaurants and specialty cafes; bars and bistros; spas, pools, hot tubs and comfy nooks for sunning; a fitness center and exercise rooms.

A seven-floor atrium was centrally located in the belly of the beast, often filled with music, dancing and a wide assortment of entertainment; surrounded by additional bars, cafes and a mini-shopping mall stocked with high-end jewelry, low-end tchotchkes and, wait for it, duty-free booze!

On decks five and six near the front of the ship, the Pacifica Theatre opened its door each evening for shows featuring the Brilliance of the Seas Orchestra and a gaggle of the most entertaining performers -- Bruce Smirnoff, Greg London, Zoe Tyler -- whose mugs you might spot if you ever google "B" list talent.

That said, I need to add they were a special group, entertainers doing their schtick -- comics, singers, a vintriloquist and juggler. They were, without exception, consummate professionals offering up a perfect way to end each perfect day. I did mention the booze thing, right?

So there I was on my last full day of cruising, the very definition of chilled out -- rested and relaxed and working my way through yet another novel, the third in less than two weeks. I happened to look off in the distance and spotted the sun dipping behind a cloud, then noticed that the Caribbean had gone still.

I was so taken by the moment, that I wandered over to a nearby railing and felt a gentle breeze whipping about the ship. The sea was inexplicably calm, a pristine expanse of water reaching out to the horizon that was preternaturally smooth, rays of golden sunshine mirrored in the quiet deep.

The world, at least for an instant, had become a place of aching beauty, a bit of truth and poetry that, frankly, touched my heart. I'm not a particularly religious sort of guy, but the 23rd Psalm popped into my noggin.

He leads me beside still waters; He restores my soul.

A moment later life took hold yet again, filled with the sounds of folks at play, enjoying the day and one another. I returned to my lounge chair, Miss Wendy and Mr. Grisham. And I couldn't help but smile when I realized my biggest decision on this afternoon was deciding whether to order a Margarita or a Piña Colada.

I solved the problem by ordering both!