Tuesday, August 31, 2010

There's been a change in the weather

I dashed out to move the garbage can from my driveway yesterday and after only an instant realized something had changed. The humidity here in the Land of Cotton had dropped from hellish to heavenly and the temperature was no longer on bake.

Some cosmic hand had dialed back the celestial burner for the moment and there actually seemed to be a vague hint of fall in the air. So I ignored my trashcan and kept on walking, down the block, around the corner and alongside a lake that can be found at the back of my subdivision.

Poets often play around with the seasons when musing about aging and death and fall is that period when we are in decline – the green leaves of youth first turning lavishly red and golden before wilting away in the early days of winter.

Phooey. I love autumn. The chill of the season is invigorating, the perfect remedy for the torpor brought on by the heat and humidity of summer. People actually become willing to leave the sanctuary of their air conditioned homes and, well, do stuff.

There are fall festivals, fall fairs and fall trips – gee Harv, let’s go to the mountains and look at the leaves and pick some apples. There are fall clothes and fall holidays – the boo fest we call Halloween and the food fest we call Thanksgiving.

And, hallelujah, there are fall sports, which is to say there’s football. And in the Land of Cotton, football – especially college football – is often a religious experience. And let us all say Amen!

In fact, toe meets leather for the first time this season on Saturday, when our Bulldogs go up against the Ragin’ Cajuns of Louisiana-Lafayette between the hedges – trust me, it’s a Georgia thing! A week later, the calendar might still read summer, but the vibe will be full-blown autumn-ee as Georgia travels to South Carolina to do battle with the Gamecocks!

Still not buying the rejuvenating juju of autumn? Then ponder these two words: Fall Classic. For months, baseball has moved along at a snail’s pace, the natural rhythm of America’s great summer pastime.

But when the temperature starts to drop and the days grow shorter, baseball becomes serious business for a few weeks in late September and early October when, finally, the champs from the American and National Leagues do battle. This bit of Americana we call the World Series and, I do believe, the series has come to be known as the “Fall Classic”.

So remember. A little morning chill means that once again the leaves will be changing color soon and the Dawgs will be at home between the hedges. All the rest is commentary. And let us say, Amen!

Monday, August 30, 2010

How I fell hard for a tasty, little treat

The exact moment that I first kissed my sweet, I knew that I was in love. We were somewhere over the Atlantic, 30,000 feet in the heavens when I nibbled away at her crisp, sugary goodness.

Only moments before we had been introduced and it took only seconds for me to strip away her wrap. I of course had the option for a, well, saltier companion. But I was feeling a bit melancholy and knew that nuts wouldn’t satisfy the yearning in my heart.

To my utter delight and amazement, I realized there were actually two goodies to be enjoyed and devoured – a ménage à trios! Ever the gentleman, I asked the lovely Miss Wendy, nodding off in the seat next to me, if she would like a, um, bite? But she yawned, said she wasn’t in the mood and said I should enjoy. And I did!

That was my introduction to Biscoff cookies, a specialty snack produced in Belgian that for years couldn’t be found in the states, and certainly not in the Land of Cotton. Many cookie-holics first came across these crisp, caramelized treats on international flights – coffee, tea, peanuts or Biscoff? And many became addicted to the snack.

Now, I no longer have to pay big bucks to visit some foreign capital to satisfy my Biscoff addiction. Today the cookie can be found in most supermarkets, a euro-sleek package holding 32 pieces – no cholesterol, no artificial colors, 0 grams of trans fat and, drum roll please, only about 40 calories each.

Not long ago I was scarfing down donuts with my morning coffee – 300 calories of saturated fat to start the day. Now my drug of choice is Lotus by Biscoff and the living is good; sweet, too!

Friday, August 27, 2010

What does it mean to be Jewish?

It’s Friday, time again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Today, let’s turn our attention to the Torah and examine the Fifth Commandment.

There are Jews who never step foot inside a synagogue, know little about the religion, its rituals and beliefs. But if asked, they’d identify themselves as being Jewish and, in fact, argue they are just as Jewish as black-hat wearing Chasids who are Shomer Shabbos.

Judaism is lots of things – a religion, a culture, a state of mind. It’s something I began thinking about several years ago during a trip to Israel when it became clear that the majority of Israelis I came into contact with were obviously Jewish, but also cosmically secular. So I was left wondering what it really means today to be a Jew.

All this philosophical musing has surfaced in a much more personal fashion in recent months as my mother continues her slow, relentless march into the darkness of dementia. My mom, who is 87, was raised in St. Paul, Minn. Her parents were immigrants to America, just a step removed from the shtetls of Eastern Europe.

Their links to Orthodox Judaism – observing the Sabbath and holidays, keeping kosher and adhering to other esoteric rituals – slipped away over the years. By the time my parents met, wed and started a family, they were solidly Conservative.

While my father attended shul and was active in synagogue politics and such, my mother practiced her Judaism in a much more amorphous fashion – she cooked and ate Jewish food, decorated the house with Jewish icons and artwork, spoke a bit of Yiddish and played mah jong. She attended High Holiday services, at least for a few hours each year, and sort of fasted on Yom Kippur.

She knows little about the Torah, Jewish rituals and holidays. But until recently she could roast a chicken or brisket and make a kugel that was spiritually inspired. Everything about her, essentially, was Jewish and, for better or worse, all her friends were Jews.

Several months ago, after we had moved her to an assisted living facility, I found my Mom sitting alone in her room. She seemed anxious and upset and after only a few moments she broke into sobs. Her life was already becoming hazy and out of focus, but there were moments of stark lucidity when she realized who she was and where she was headed.

“I just feel so alone,” she had said that day, then added, “and no one around here is Jewish.” She was right. The facility was bright and airy and filled with delightful people. But there were absolutely no cultural icons or images, foods, rituals or friends to bring her comfort.

We tried to add a few “Jewish” touches to her small space – little drawings from the grandchildren, photos of a trip she had taken to Israel years earlier, matzo ball soup from the neighborhood deli and a brightly lit hanukkiah that we placed in her window on Hanukkah.

But our efforts were too little and too late. Just a few weeks later she had already reached that place where her life was now a fading memory, mostly white noise filled with static. Yet it was still a shock, at least for me, when I walked into one of the facility’s public rooms and found my Mom sitting with a group of other residents, all singing “Amazing Grace”.

In the months my mom has been in assisted living, there have been church services, youth groups passing through singing Christmas Carols and chaplains offering spiritual advice and healing. None of these activities involved my mother. But Christian life was part of the fabric of the place.

So it wasn’t all that surprising last week when my Mom, clearly confused, told one of my brothers that she needed to go someplace. When he asked where, she first said to the library, but then added, no, she “was going to church.”

All that will change today when we move her to the William Breman Jewish Home here in the Land of Cotton, one of the premier care facilities in the area.

In a real way, I like to think, she’s returning home. That becomes immediately clear when you spot a mezuzah on the front door, the little touches of Judaica that are about and the small shul off the main corridor of the facility.

It’ll also be nice that ham sandwiches and bacon won’t be an option any longer and, once again, brisket, kugel and matzo ball soup will be on the kosher menu. That she’ll be dining each day with dozens of other Jews is the proverbial, ahhh, schmear on the bagel.

My hope, a silent prayer really, is that a bit of light still shines along the dark path my Mom is walking and that one day soon, if only for an instant, the savory smell of Jewish cooking or perhaps a small phrase of Yiddish being spoken around her or the cheerful sounds of Jewish day school students singing a Yiddish lullaby or Jewish song will remind her that she’s not alone.

So what does it mean to be Jewish? For my Mom, at least for now, I hope it’s about finding a place that is warm and safe, filled with a bit of yiddiskeit that reminds her of home. And for me? Observing the Fifth Commandment.

THIS JUST IN: Unfortunately, Mom will have to wait another day or two before dining on brisket and matzo ball soup! After posting this blog entry, there was a bit of a crisis and Mom was taken to the emergency room of an area hospital. She has been admitted for observation of a gastro-intestinal problem – I'll spare you the details. Once released, we will move her directly to her new home.

FOOD FOR THE SPIRIT: Nothing like a hot bowl of matzo ball soup (photo above) to feed the soul and connect a member of the tribe with their Jewish roots.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Miss Universe Pageant languid and svelte!

While sort of watching TV earlier this week, mostly switching between The Food Network’s Cupcake Wars and yet another rerun of Law & Order on TBS, I stumbled across a bunch of nearly naked women.

I thought for a moment that the lovely Miss Wendy had gotten me an early birthday present and signed us up for the Playboy network, but then realized what I was watching was way too bizarre for anything Hugh Hefner and company could develop.

No, this was a production of that zany Trump fellow, the annual flesh fest we all know and love as the Miss Universe Pageant. Actually, I exaggerate.

It’s been years since any sort of beauty pageant has attracted much more than a collective yawn from Mr. and Mrs. America. Bert Parks – now that’s a name hidden way back in the vault of golden oldies – was still wearing a tux, standing onstage in Atlantic City and singing an ode to Miss America when beauty pageants still registered on the nation’s pop culture radar.

All that said, for the few minutes I forced myself to check out the, ahhh, cupcakes on NBC, the judges were in the process of whittling down the lovelies to the final 10. The bikini-clad babes, sporting shoes with foot-long stiletto heels, stood about waiting to hear their names called, then strutted their, um, stuff to center stage.

For a few moments I thought I was having some sort of flashback, sitting in the Springer Theater in Columbus – that would be my hometown, a little village nestled comfortably in a crook of the Chattahoochee River – covering the Miss Land of Cotton Pageant for the local paper.

The state pageant was held each year in Columbus – go figure! When I managed to wrangle an internship with the Enquirer in the late ’60s, one of my first jobs was covering the preliminary events – swimsuit, evening gown, entertainment.

At the time, it was understood I didn’t have the necessary experience to cover the final night of the pageant. It would take another few years of journalism school and seasoning to learn how to properly use such modifiers as svelte, voluptuous, limpid and languid, seductive, sensual and, ahh, booty before I’d be able to, well, rise to the occasion.

Unfortunately, I was moved to the cop beat. But that’s another story.

It was late Tuesday before I learned Miss Mexico had most wowed the judges Monday night and walked away with top honors. The bigger story, so I heard on the evening news, came during the pivotal question and answer segment of the program, when Miss Philippines, Maria Venus Raj, dropped the proverbial ball. Shame!

Asked to detail “one big mistake” in her life and what she did to “make it right,” the svelte beauty, seductively suggested with a sensual look that was at once limpid and languid, that in her “22 years of existence,” she had done “nothing major”. Then she shook her voluptuous booty.

My mentors in journalism would be proud!

HOW ABOUT THIS MOMENT? Miss Philippines (photo above), Maria Venus Raj, lost her composure and the Miss Universe title when she couldn’t recall one mistake in her life.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Friends and food with an Italian accent

house is the word that comes to mind when I pass LaStrada out here in my neck of the woods. It’s a little Italian restaurant that has been around for decades, doing business out of a pieced-together shack that rests uncomfortably close to a major thoroughfare in the Land of Cotton.

It really has no shape or form and I have no idea what it housed before it became a little ristorante that has the feel of a neighborhood trattoria. Unpretentious sums up its interior – a few dozen tables and booths on a rickety wooden floor, small bar in one corner, a few photos and tchotchkes sprinkled about to provide a bit of, um, atmosphere.

Balancing out the look, however, is the food, iconic Italian dishes that are hearty and dee-licious – ravioli, lasagna, linguini and spaghetti. There’s also a creative chef back in the tiny kitchen, kicking out daily specials that ooze with Italian flavor and charm.

The Shrimp Sambuca, for instance, will have you humming “That’s Amore”. It’s a lavish and sophisticated dish featuring sautéed jumbo shrimp in garlic, flavored with onion, basil, and kalamata olives, blended together with a tomato sambuca sauce and served over a herbed pappardelli pasta and feta cheese.

I’m thinking it was the aroma of all these tasty delights that smacked me in the kisser when the lovely Miss Wendy and I met up with weekend pals, Susan and John, at LaStrada a few nights ago. Before we could say ciao and offer up a few air kisses all around, there was a basket of garlic bread and a small bowl of black olive tapenade to whet our appetites.

The menu is expansive, but manageable; and being in a no frills sort of mood, and only moderately starving, I had little difficulty sorting through the salads and pasta, meat and fish dishes before pulling together a euphonic blend of Italian delights.

Ignoring the hellish temperatures outside, I started with one of the evening’s specials – chicken vegetable soup, a hearty blend of fresh veggies and hunks of chicken, swimming in a rich tomato-based broth. For my entrée, I went with the manicotti – large tubular pasta shells stuffed with ricotta cheese and herbs topped with marinara sauce and melted mozzarella cheese.

I was so lost in all this Italian goodness – a perfect blend of sweet, hearty sauce and gooey cheeses and pasta – that I have no recollection what my partner in life and friends were feasting on nearby. I do recall the clinking of dinnerware and some vague sounds of contentment around me.

So, what about desert? Well, I’m glad you asked. There were no bad choices, just a difficult decision – cheesecake and gelato and tiramisu, oh my! What about Cioccolato al Forno, a warm flourless chocolate cake served with a chocolate sauce topping? Why, yes, let us all eat cake

It was rich in a light and airy sort of way, amusingly garnished with two delicate swirls of cream, sensually caressed with a layer of silky chocolate sauce. And it was good.

Now it’s gone and so is the weekend, our Italian feast just another warm memory of good times, with good friends. Bella notte, I think, is the appropriate phrase – a beautiful Italian night, at least for a few hours, before stepping back out into the heat and humidity of the Land of Cotton.

LOOKS ITALIAN: Take a couple of large tubular pasta shells (photo above), stuff liberally with ricotta cheese and herbs, then top with marinara sauce and melted mozzarella cheese and, bingo, you’ve got manicotti!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Book explores what it means to be Jewish

It's Friday and time, yet again, for another posting of "Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts" (IJS&F). Today I offer a review of a book that essentially allows two rabbis -- one Reform, the other Orthodox -- to share their worldviews and debate who is the "real" Jew.

How Jewish do you have to be to be a real Jew? That's the convoluted question that uneasily rests at the heart of the book, "One People, Two Worlds" (Schocken Books, $26), written by two rabbis who share the same religion but practice their faith in dramatically different fashion.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, a leading Reform advocate for religious pluralism, and Rabbi Yosef Reinman, an Orthodox Talmudic scholar, were brought together by a mutual friend who convinced them to embark on an e-mail dialogue about the issues that polarize the Jewish community.

The two men spend only a few pages introducing themselves before tackling the thorny philosophical concept of "truth." It's a subject that colors much of their discussion over a 21-month period as they tap dance around a mixed bag of theologically sensitive topics within the Jewish community.

The rabbis manage, for the most part, to keep their emotions in check as they debate such explosive topics as the divine nature of the Torah and the stories it contains; the status and treatment of women; assimilation and marriage; sabbath observance and synagogue rituals; divorce; and homosexuality.

But eventually both men grow weary – and frustrated. After 15 months of sparring, Hirsch writes: "Your writing is replete with terms like 'distortion,' 'scandalous distortion,' 'appalling distortion,' 'lies,' 'big lie' . . . The tone of your writing betrays a certain defensiveness . . . Your efforts to project certainty reveal uncertainty."

Reinman responds: "Well, it appears the debate has gotten down to the tone of my remarks rather than the substance. You cannot refute my arguments, so instead you point to my occasional use of rather strong language as proof that I am covering up undetected flaws. 'Efforts to project certainty,' you argue, 'reveal uncertainty.' How clever."

In fact, Hirsch and Reinman both appear clever after 300 pages of give and take. Neither is moved by the other's arguments and both continue to hold tightly to their own version of truth. Perhaps Reinman captures the ultimate truth when he shares an old Yiddish story with Hirsch at the beginning of their dialogue.

"You remind me of the rabbi who agreed to mediate a dispute between two congregants," he writes. "After listening carefully to one of the litigants, he scratched his chin and said, 'You know, you're right!' "He then listened to the arguments of the other litigant. Again, he scratched his chin and said, 'You're right!'

"The rebbetzin [rabbi's wife] objected. 'My dear husband, if he is right, then the other is wrong, and if the other is right, then he is wrong. How can they both be right?' The rabbi thought for a moment, then he said, 'You're also right!'"

Reinman and Hirsch rest comfortably at opposite ends of a theological spectrum. One end remains firmly rooted in ancient beliefs that continue to offer profound meaning to many Jews; the other end pokes into the 21st century, still linked to the same biblical concepts, but constantly changing and adapting to the modern world.

Can Reinman and Hirsch both be right and bearers of truth? Is one rabbi just as Jewish as the other? Possibly. Probably. Just ask the rabbi in the old Yiddish tale – and the millions of Jews in the Orthodox and Reform movements.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What's in a name? Everything that's important!

When I was growing up in Columbus, I knew a kid named Robert – Robert Schwartz. His name seemed a bit odd for someone so young. Yet it seemed to fit.

Robert was quiet-spoken, reserved and, it seemed at the time, always serious. And he was smart – very smart. Robert was also a year or two older than I was, at an age when kids spent most of their time with youngsters of their own age. So Robert and I knew one another, but we were mostly in the background of each other’s lives.

Flash forward several decades. After school, the army, getting married and moving around to further my career, the lovely Miss Wendy and I landed in the Land of Cotton. Turns out Robert had been living in the area for years and was a member of the synagogue we joined.

But something had changed. Robert was now Bob. He remained quiet-spoken, reserved and, it seemed, still somewhat serious. Did I mention he was smart as a whip? Why, I think I did. And he held onto his smarts as an adult.

Bob also seemed happy and friendly, at times even jolly. Bob was – how should I put it – comfortable with his life and who he had become. I’m certain a major reason for his happiness was his wife Paula and their two sons, Marshall and Elliott.

I bring up all of this now because I attended Bob’s funeral on Tuesday. There was a huge crowd – family, friends and colleagues – who huddled together, ignoring the hot and humid weather, focusing instead on the moving eulogies offered by friends and family.

It turns out Bob had yet another name that his longtime friend, David Witt, shared with those present. When both were boys, growing up in Columbus, they called each other by their first initials – David was D, Robert was R. But it became clear moments later, when Marshall and Elliott spoke, that perhaps the most important name Bob ever had was “Dad”.

Both spoke fondly of a man I never got to know, a loving, kind and generous soul. Bob apparently had a rule that one of his sons detailed, explaining that when he came home from work he would spend 15 minutes with each child doing whatever they wanted.

Marshall and Elliott often pooled their time together, and father and sons would wrestle and play football, the games of childhood that bring generations together. The Robert I knew from Columbus was the sort of guy who might create such a rule, but it was Bob who had learned the joy of playing with his children.

Bob, like all of us, had changed over the years. He had grown and matured, become a loving husband and father, a “selfless” man who understood the absolute joy to be found in taking care of his family.

He had lived – and outlived – several names in his lifetime. But they were all part of the same person, a man who had played out his life, it would seem, with integrity and love. And that’s important, the living of a “good” life, a point that is always noted in the funeral liturgy of a Jew.

“As a drop of water in the sea, as a grain of sand on the shore are a person's few days in life. The good things in life last for limited days, but a good name endures forever.”

Based on the outpouring of love and respect shown at Tuesday’s funeral, Robert need not worry. Bob is now at rest and his good name endures.

May the Almighty comfort the friends and family of Bob among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

GOOD LIFE, GOOD MAN: Bob Schwartz (photo above) was remembered fondly as a selfless man who cared deeply for his friends and family.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

One easy way to hold onto your memories

There’s something about photos that make them difficult to discard. In the high-tech world we live in today, photographs are mostly bits of digital information stored on memory cards or computer hard drives. But for many of us, snapshots, the type you find on pieces of photographic paper, have captured the big and small moments of our lives.

So what happens if you garbage an image – is the moment lost forever? That’s the dilemma I faced this week as I began the arduous task of sorting through the hundreds, perhaps thousands of photos that fill albums, dresser drawers and closet space at my mom’s condo. The irony is that she has left this place, now living in an assisted living facility, yet her memories remain.

The snapshots are the stuff of life, photos of my family when we were growing up in Columbus, tossed together with a wide assortment of images from my parents when they were kids and shortly after they met in the 1940s.

Add to this photographic mélange our extended families – wives, children, nieces, nephews and grandkids – distant relatives and friends of my folks and you have both the photographic heartbeat of my parent’s lives and a melancholy mess!

Do I keep the blurred image of my mom, walking onto a cruise ship, someone’s hand gently resting on her shoulder? What about a black and white photo of my dad, I think, surrounded by three girls, all smiling and all sitting atop the hood of a 1930s-era Ford?

How best to handle the hundreds of photos that document family happenings and events – birthdays and bar mitzvahs; vacations and reunions; weddings, anniversaries and all those fading and blurred baby pictures of all our children?

If I toss away a photo of my Aunt Ester, a lovely woman and my father’s only sister, am I throwing away a part of my family’s life? If that’s a concern, what about the scratched and torn photos of my uncles when they were youngsters, their stories yet to be told?

Trash those photos and have I in some fashion trashed their hopes and dreams or, more reasonably but just as troubling, tarnished their memories?

I don’t think so. There are two types of people in the world when it comes to holding onto stuff – those who hold tightly and those who let go. I pretty much think stuff is stuff and that life, ultimately, is a collection of memories.

Photos, of course, are all about capturing memories, a moment in time memorialized on a piece of paper – today digitalized and stored on a chip. It’s nice, really nice, to be able to wrap your hands around a memory – that instant when your child was born, the day you walked along the beach with your honey, that really special vacation you shared with your young family when all seemed possible and you still had hair!

But none of those memories, at least for today, can be taken from me. They are packed away in my personal hard drive – my head, perhaps my heart – easily accessible.

That said, I want my family to decide what to keep and what to trash. So there are now at least six piles of photos waiting to be sorted, lots of memories and lots of blurred images. Each can decide what to hold onto and what best fits in their minds and hearts.

And I’ll allow Robert Fulghum, probably best known as the author of “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” to have the last word today:

“Photographs are precious memories … the visual evidence of place and time and relationships … ritual talismans for the treasure chest of the heart.”

Monday, August 16, 2010

"Eat Pray Love" -- pretty ode to self-absorption

It was another hot and sultry weekend in the Land of Cotton and the lovely Miss Wendy and I were looking for something – anything – to do that would keep us entertained and cool for a few hours. We happened to be near a movie theater in our little corner of the world and took a chance that something entertaining and cool might be playing.

Turns out the very cool and entertaining hot new flick of the weekend, Eat Pray Love, was scheduled to begin shortly and there were plenty of seats available. The film, just in case you’ve been in a coma the last few years, is based on the bestseller by Elizabeth Gilbert, detailing the year Gilbert spent living in Italy, India and Indonesia after her marriage ended in divorce and a romance she quickly stumbled into failed.

Perhaps I should have thought through the collegial comment of the only person of the male persuasion I spotted walking into the theater when he called out to me, saying he was “glad to see at least one other guy was talked into seeing this movie.”

It took me a few moments to process what he had actually said, but a quick look around the theater before it went black pretty much confirmed what the guy was suggesting – chick flick! In fact, I’m pretty sure if you look up the term in the dictionary, one of the definitions will be “Eat Pray Love”!

That’s not to say this ode to self-absorption and all things touchy-feely was bad. The cinematography was beautiful, the locations – Rome, India and Bali – exotic, even mildly transcendent, and the story amusing, entertaining, occasionally unsettling and thought provoking in a cliché-filled sort of way.

If only the writer and director had stopped at “Eat,” I’d be able to offer the proverbial “thumbs up” for this effort. Gastronomically speaking, the film comes together nicely when Liz, the Julia Roberts character, flies off to Rome to find her passion for food – and life – once again.

The filmmaker, that would be Director Ryan Murphy, is at his best gently caressing veggies with virgin olive oil, lingering over mounds of pasta, seductively offering up feasts that whet the appetite and make the point that it’s really okay to enjoy food and it’s really okay sometimes just to do absolutely nothing because, well, just because gosh darn it!

The rest of the film is mostly about that enigmatic “because” and stumbles around tossing about clichés with abandon – let go and let God, empty your mind and focus on the present, you have to swim the moat to reach the castle.

Phooey, I say! As entertainment, the book and movie are okay – I guess. But as some sort of philosophical statement – its raison d'être, you’d think – offering answers about the stuff of life, it’s infantile and boorish.

Watching poor Liz wrestle with her demons, I simply want to tell her to get a friggin’ grip! In the real world there are millions – actually, ahhh, billions – of people who don’t have the luxury to fly off to exotic spots to contemplate their lint-filled navels, people dealing with real problems.

So I was hoping one of the many gurus in the film, busy offering up bromides and aphorisms, might start quoting Saint Francis of Assisi – hey, I know some Christian stuff – and suggest Liz table her woes for awhile and try helping others, “for it is in giving that we receive.”

One last note. My spiritual leader (SL), the white-bearded guy who offers up the occasional D’var Torah on Shabbat and tells jokes at my shul, shared this bit of wisdom a few years ago.

Moise and Yankle were butchers, slaving away in a tiny shop in their little shtetl. Yankle was unhappy and one day went to shul to talk with the rebbe. He came back, a smile filling his face.

That afternoon, after working only an hour or so, he told Moise he had to dash off to Torah study. The next morning he came in two hours late, beaming, and told his brother that he spent the early hours in prayer. Later, he took off for afternoon prayers, then again left early for evening prayers and more Torah study.

This went on for a month. Finally, after another wonderful morning of prayer, Yankle showed up at work beaming, his heart filled with joy. “Moise,” Yankle said to his brother, busy at the moment sharpening his butcher’s knife. “You can find God, too; you can be happy, just like me, praying and studying all day long.”

Moise glanced over at Yankle, holding up his gleaming knife and smiling. “Yankle,” he said, “someone has to cut the meat.”

The challenge, for Liz and all the rest of us, is finding that spiritual part of ourselves while managing to “cut the meat.” It’s a trick my guru calls balance.

KODAK MOMENT: Author Elizabeth Gilbert (photo above) spent a year looking for herself and details what she found in "Eat Pray Love", now a moive starring Julia Roberts. How cool is that!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Of life, death and the Hebrew month of Elul

It’s Friday, time yet again for another posting of "Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts" (IJS&F). Don't look now, but we're already well into the Hebrew month of Elul, a period when the faithful begin their spiritual preparations for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. So today, let’s get right to the core of the holiday season and examine “The Book of Life”.

Life and death can be found at the heart of the Jewish High Holy Days, poetically captured in an ancient Rosh Hashana prayer, the Unetaneh Tokef.

"On Rosh Hashana," the prayer reads, "it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many shall leave this world, and how many shall be born into it, who shall live and who shall die . . ."

The image is clear. On the Jewish New Year, God stands before the "Book of Lfe" and writes down the names of the righteous. Ten days later, on the Day of Atonement, the book is shut and sealed.

I've heard the prayer chanted for decades, but a few years ago the melancholy words took on a more insistent tone. God got my attention, a little tap on the shoulder that forced me to examine my mortality and helped me understand that I won't be living forever.

It all began with a CT scan that picked up a few worrisome blips, shadows that the doctor described as nodules. He never said tumor, never said malignant, never said cancer. But that's what I was hearing, until he told me that such scans are often "over- read" and the information he was sharing would probably turn out to be nothing.

He suggested I have another test in a few months, just to be on the safe side. And that was my plan. It lasted two days, until a nurse from my internist's office called and said her boss had just received the scan and we needed to do another – soon! My fear turned to despair when yet another doctor called a day later and told me he'd also seen the report and, by the way, there seemed to be a "lesion" in another part of my body.

I listened, for the moment stunned and silent, trying to make sense of his words. Who shall live and who shall die? The High Holiday abstraction had turned coldly concrete.

Of course we're all going to die, a thought that remains a painless cliché until the shadow of death rests heavily on our doorstep and we're forced to confront the reality of limited tomorrows.

The issue is to be found throughout the liturgy of the Jewish High Holidays and is the emotional core of the Unetaneh Tokef, a prayer that becomes a statement of moral certitude when it suggests that there also can be a "why" to death, that in some fashion "good" and "bad" and spiritual engagement are part of the equation.

"But repentance, prayer and righteousness," we're promised, "avert the severe decree." Well, maybe.

The earliest the second scan could be scheduled – and I remind everyone that this was several years ago – was the middle of the next week. I had five days – and five long nights – to wonder if the shadows hidden away in my body were waging war or, simply, shadows.

And then something interesting happened. When it all became too much, when the darkness momentarily filled my world, I remembered the words of the Psalmist.

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou are with me ..." And slowly, the curse of waiting, of not knowing, of fearing the worst, turned to a blessing. After all, I wasn't alone.

I woke the next morning to a sense of freedom, both engaged yet removed from the normal give-and-take of life. Daily snags seemed less insistent, daily joys more intense. I found myself shrugging off my armor and lowering my guard, no longer needing to keep people at a distance. I walked more, talked more and prayed more. I cried more and laughed more. I waited.

And then one morning a few days later, I lay down on a gurney and was gently bobbed into the metallic belly of another CT scanner. Gears hummed and whirred and a technology that borders on the miraculous took hold while I held my breath and prayed. The scan took only minutes and the results came just a few hours later.

The nodules were shadows, background clutter of little consequence; and the lesion was a cyst, worth watching but of no immediate concern. The elation of the moment has faded. The impact remains.

In a few weeks, I will be back in Synagogue, playing out the script of the holiday period. The Book of Life will be opened and cosmic decisions will be made. The righteous, we are told, need not fear, but for the rest of us there will once again be an urgent tone in the blast of the shofar and the prayers of the congregation.

It’s the Hebrew month of Elul and it’s time to prepare!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

35 reasons I'll be visiting Israel once again

If all goes according to plan, I hope to return to Israel in late October. This will be my second trip to the country in just a little over a year and my fourth trip since 2003.

To explain my fascination with Israel, I’d probably need to bore you with selected details about my childhood and growing up a Jew in the Land of Cotton. I’m sure I’d end up mentioning the Holocaust and the miraculous transition of the Jewish people from victims to victors.

At some point I’d need to explore the importance of cultural identity and my still developing sense of faith, belief and wonder; then tackle the sticky political issues of the day – Palestinian statehood and refugee camps, suicide bombers and pistol-packing settlers, feckless European intellectuals, anti-Semitism, and the “right of return”.

In short, it would be easy to turn what is essentially an emotional response into an intellectual exercise. And still I would fall short. Instead, I will simply try to answer the question a friend asked recently when I announced I was returning to Israel.

“So dude, you going to Israel again? Why?” Given the time, this is what I would tell him:

 Because I love the whole airport adventure – arriving early, checking in, being hassled by security guards, then being handed a boarding pass with Tel Aviv stamped across the top.

 Because I’m fascinated by my fellow travelers – students with backpacks, visiting the Jewish homeland for the first time; Orthodox families, modestly dressed, the women in long skirts, the men all in black, tzitzit dangling from their hips; businessmen in coats and ties, soldiers in battle fatigues, tourists in Eddie Bauer-chic!

 Because halfway across the Atlantic, as the sun starts to peek over the distant horizon, a group of men magically show up in the rear of the plane wearing tallis and tefillin, offering mumbled words of prayer to God.

 Because I’m basically a kid and love futzing around with the plane’s entertainment system –TV programs, movies, a variety of music channels – all at my fingertips.

 Because after 12 hours or so in the air, when I reach that toxic point of being way too tired, sore and bored, the pilot finally announces that we will be entering Israeli airspace in 30 minutes.

 Because I love the palpable sense of energy and anticipation that fills the plane as the blue waters of the Mediterranean give way to the white beaches of Tel Aviv, then the soaring skyline of the city.

 Because people still applaud when the plane touches down at Ben Gurion International airport.

 Because when I hop into a taxi, after haggling with the cabbie over the price and he says b’seder (okay), I actually understand what he means.

 Because one of my favorite hotels, the Adiv, is cheap, convenient and centrally located – five minutes from both the Mediterranean and Dizengoff Street, 10 minutes from Dizengoff Center and 15 minutes from Hacarmel Market.

 Because on Friday evenings I can walk along Frishman Street in the heart of Tel Aviv, from Rabin Square to my hotel, enjoying a fresh, cool breeze blowing in from the Mediterranean.

 Because I’m Jewish and this is a city filled with Jews, a happening place where I can hear the laughter of friends and family gathered together in nearby flats enjoying Shabbat dinner with one another.

 Because in this vibrant, exotic city, I can feast on shawarma, hummus, filet mignon, risotto, sushi, hot dogs or hamburgers – tasty, reasonably priced and kosher.

 Because when I order a gin and tonic, the waiter brings me a couple ounces of gin in a tall glass, a full bottle of tonic water and a bucket of ice … tov meod!

 Because as I’m sipping that adult beverage, I can sit back, wiggle my tootsies in the sand and watch the sun slowly sink into the sea.

 Because I can hop on a sherut and for only a few shekels make my way to Jerusalem – a short 45-minute ride to the east.

 Because on Shabbat I can attend services at the Great Synagogue and listen to a world-class choir, then walk a block to Moreshet Yisrael, a synagogue that is part of the Fuchsberg Center for Conservative Judaism.

 Because after services I can then walk right next door to the Agron Guest House, a youth hostel that is neat and clean and centrally located, only minutes away from the Old City of Jerusalem.

 Because I can safely walk the streets of this magical place before the sun rises, find my way to Marzipan in Mahane Yehuda and buy a few pieces of the world’s best rugelach – warm, oozing with chocolate and delicious!

 Because as I enjoy my snack I can take a few minutes – or hours – and wander about the market, a remarkable place filled with kiosks, restaurants, stalls and vendors selling fresh fruits, vegetables, spices and nuts, the air thick with the smells of all these goods, euphonically blended with the sights, sounds and energy of a city coming alive.

 Because just a few blocks away I can sit on a bench on Ben Yehuda Street and watch the Jewish world pass by – young soldiers with weapons slung casually over their shoulders; Orthodox boys, sporting kippot and tzitzit; beautiful sabra women in designer dresses; preppy-looking yeshiva students and tourists in flowery shirts and jeans; shop keepers, street cleaners and bus drivers; cabbies, cops and politicians; musicians and street performers; rabbis, prophets and beggars.

 Because when I get my fill of people watching I can join the crowd of shoppers and purchase tchotchkes and any sort of judaica imaginable – a hand-decorated tallis or kippot; bejeweled menorah, mezuzah or Shabbat candlesticks; golden Magen David or diamond-filled hamsa; pictures, paintings and enough jewelry to take care of every friend and relative on my must-buy list.

 Because at the heart of this fresh new day is a colorful old city, filled with cobblestone streets and serpentine alleys, a place of spiritual energy and ancient secrets.

 Because at the center of this place is the Kotel, a soaring, sun-bleached wall of profound historical and religious import, a magnet for Jews from around the world searching for meaning and connection to a belief that traces its roots back thousands of years.

 Because given the time I can visit Yad Vashem, the world-class Holocaust museum that details in unique, compelling fashion the premeditated murder of Six Million Jews during World War II; then turn my attention to Mount Herzl, the national cemetery where many of Israel’s leaders – Herzl, Rabin, Meir – and military heroes are buried.

 Because one of the most extraordinary archaeological finds of the 20th Century, the Dead Sea Scrolls, is housed at the Shrine of the Book, an architectural masterpiece that fills one wing of the Israel Museum.

 Because even if I tire of visiting museums and ancient sites, I can simply stroll in any direction, knowing that I’m treading the same ground that my ancient ancestors walked thousands of years ago.

 Because I can visit Mea Shearim on Friday nights, the Jerusalem neighborhood where the ultra-Orthodox gather with their rebbes at a festive meal and spiritual happening – a Tisch – that is at once other-worldly, bizarre and deeply satisfying.

 Because I have only a vague sense of the worth of the shekel, so I spend expansively, think good thoughts and don’t worry about the tab – until I return home.

 Because I can rent a car or hop on a tour bus and in a day or two – if I’m in a hurry – criss-cross this tiny country that’s the size of New Jersey.

 Because of the cosmopolitan vibe of Tel Aviv, breath-taking beauty of Haifa, spiritual depth and richness of Jerusalem and Sfat.

 Because of the Mediterranean, Kinneret and Dead Seas.

 Because of the Jordan River, the trickling link between the desolate landscape of the Judean Desert and lush richness of the Hula Valley.

 Because many of the iconic places I’ve been lucky enough to visit around the world are often beautiful and always interesting but, ultimately, just places; while the cities, sites and attractions in Israel – Masada and Caesarea; Haifa and Sfat; the tunnels beneath the Kotel in Jerusalem and the Palmach Museum in Tel Aviv – all manage in some fashion to touch my soul.

 Because I’ve met people who’ve traveled to Israel and had bad moments, but never met anyone who had a bad trip.

 Because I’m Jewish and this place, in some inexplicable way, is my spiritual home, filled with my mispucha and links to my distant past.

KODAK MOMENT: This picturesque scene (photo above) is just one of many pedestrian walkways that twist and turn through the Old City of Jerusalem, a place filled with spiritual energy and ancient secrets.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

My special few weeks with a tattood girl

Her name is Lisbeth Salander and she’s been keeping me company for the last several weeks. At first blush, Lisbeth doesn’t seem the sort of girl I’d spend much time with. Her behavior is a bit odd and her dress even odder.

She’s given to wearing outlandish outfits, mostly black with lots of studs. It all goes rather nicely with the black makeup Lisbeth likes, sort of an eclectic blend of punk and goth. The piercings and tattoos pull the entire look together.

Lisbeth, as many of you already know, is one of the most well-drawn and memorable protagonists to hit the bestseller list in recent years. She’s at the heart of the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s blockbuster "Millennium" trilogy – “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”, “The Girl Who Played With Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest”.

Despite her look and behavioral issues, Lisbeth has the uncanny ability to find things out and make things happen. And, fortunately, she’s surrounded by an incredible cast of characters that are as interesting and complex as you’ll find in contemporary pop fiction.

The biggest problem when zipping through the trilogy is handling the Swedish names and places – Agneta, Ekström, Hedström and Blomkvist; Appelviken, Mariahallen, Hornsgatan and Saltsjöbaden. Sort of stops you cold, at least for a moment. I quickly found that the alien notes, however, become little more than background noise in the symphony created by Larsson.

Lisbeth, despite being socially inept, uncommunicative and introspective to a fault – all, btw, for good reason – is actually brilliant, with a photographic memory and unique ability to understand and use anything remotely connected to computers.

Over the course of the trilogy, she manages, with a little help from her friends, to solve murders, bring down billionaire thugs and their expansive empires and uncover a nasty little conspiracy that reaches deeply into Säpo (short for Sakerhetspolisen), Sweden’s super-secret intelligence service.

It’s the getting from here to there that makes for fun reading and it’s the richly-realized characters that add meat to the journey. Larsson’s attention to detail becomes all the more apparent if, like me, you've managed to see the films that have already been made of the first two books.

While entertaining – it’s always fun to see characters you’ve grown to love or hate on the big screen – the movies lack the heft and emotional impact found in the novels. How could it be otherwise? A two-hour film just doesn’t have the time to ramble around the landscape and into the lives of characters the way a novelist can do over 600 pages or so.

Unfortunately, Larsson won’t be doing anymore rambling about and Lisbeth has probably hacked into her last computer. The author died shortly after turning in his opus magnum. Apparently, Larsson was working on yet another novel featuring Lisbeth Salander, but it’s at the center of a controversy involving Larsson’s family and his life partner, Eva Gabrielsson.

Meanwhile, Hollywood has decided to jump onto Larsson’s money machine – the novels have sold 20 million copies in 41 countries, making millions (dollars, euros, kronor) – and remake “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”.

Daniel Craig – you know, the chap who’s been playing James Bond recently – has already signed on as Mikael Blomkvist, journalist extraordinaire and Lizbeth’s love/hate interest in the novels. The really big question is who will be playing the “girl”?

No matter, I’m certain we’re talking super blockbuster. Why? Because in the words of Elisson, my Land of Cotton neighbor and blogging pal, this is all “fröcken goot stöff!”

THE GIRL: Swedish actress Noomi Rapace (photo above) plays Lizbeth Salander, the odd, memorable character at the heart of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy.

Monday, August 9, 2010

And Mother Nature wins by a knockout

Yes, I know. This photo is painful. So think how it must feel to actually be me, the person all puffed up with histamines. My intentions were good, but there are just some things that should be left to professionals. Let me explain.

My undoing began several months ago when I figured I had the time to start doing my own yard work. Bad idea.

At the very least, I was certain I could save several thousand bucks by getting rid of my yard service – a mow and blow crew that, well, mostly mowed and blowed!

So I immediately went out and spent several hundred dollars on lawn stuff – new mower, gas-fueled blower and weed-whacker, electric hedge trimmer, safety goggles, gloves and trash bags, top soil, compost and lawn seed.

Did I mention this was a bad idea? Why, yes, I think I did.

In this summer of hell, when temperatures have hovered in the mid-90s in the Land of Cotton, even if you have a green thumb – which, btw, I don’t – it has probably turned brown by now and shriveled to dust. At least that’s what has happened to my lawn. Anything green you spot around my yard could best be classified as a weed.

For some reason I’ve yet to figure out, the heat kills grass, plants and shrubs while invigorating crabgrass, dandelions, ragweed and ground ivy.

To use a baseball metaphor, it’s the bottom of the fifth and Team Nature is tossing a no-hitter against Team Nor. Worse, Team Nor is just about to be placed on the disabled list. Why, you might ask.

And I might explain that while managing to kill off most of my lawn and laying waste to the shrubbery around my house, I’ve been bitten by at least one tick – can you say Lyme Diseases – and spotted two others crawling over my body; gotten poison ivy, at least twice; fell off a ladder while trimming a 14-foot hedge; and – now would be a good time to take another look at that photo above – was recently stung on my left eyelid by a frickin’ wasp while working in the yard!

So before I make the lovely Miss Wendy a widow, I’m thinking of finding a new way to spend my extra time, something simple and safe, like joining the army and becoming one of those guys who defuses bombs. At least then Team Nor would have a 50-50 chance of winning a game or two! Or, better yet, perhaps I should take up recreational drinking. Sounds like a plan.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Josefov: Lovely, historically rich and spooky!

It's Friday, time again for yet another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Today we visit Josefov — the aging, historically rich and important Jewish community of Prague.

You've been to Israel, visited the Holocaust museum in Washington, even spent a few days in Amsterdam and saw the tiny annex where Anne Frank once hid from Nazis. What now?

If you haven't visited Eastern Europe, you might as well reach deep into your savings and go ahead and take that special trip you've been thinking about for years. Once there, trust me, you'll want to visit Prague.

The city is old in a warm and quaint sort of way — tree-lined boulevards and cobblestone streets, intimate cafes and stately mansions. And yet, everything is also new and vibrant. Like much of Eastern Europe, Prague was engulfed by World War II in the 1940s and later was completely buried under the dusty gray cloak of Communism.

But in 1989, a series of demonstrations in Prague and across Czechoslovakia — The Velvet Revolution — led quickly to the overthrow of the government. Only a year later, much of the region was toying with democracy and capitalism, opening its borders to investors and tourists.

In recent years, Prague has become a jewel of a city once again, still filled with plenty of old-world charm, but also gussied up a bit with new-world panache.

At first glance the Jewish quarter here, Josefov, looks like much of the rest of the city — nicely aged and filled with tourists. A clock with Hebrew letters, however, atop the Town Hall in the heart of the district, offers a hint that you've stumbled onto something special.

Once the center of Jewish life in Europe, Josefov is today a museum, memorial and remembrance of ancient traditions and recent tragedies. And it's definitely worth a visit.

The district, a few square blocks squeezed tightly between the Vltava River and the city's Old Town Square, dates back to the 13th century when Jews were ordered to leave their homes and settle in the area. It now includes a town hall and ceremonial hall, a museum and six synagogues; a splendid, remarkable cemetery; and one aging, but resilient world-class legend. Two of the synagogues are especially noteworthy.

The Pinkas serves as a Holocaust memorial, its walls inscribed with the names of the 77,297 victims of the Nazis from Bohemia and Moravia. Tourists shuffle through the structure in silence, many taken with the artistic merits of the memorial, most horrified by the sheer numbers that fill the space.

The Old-New Synagogue, one of the oldest shuls in the world still in use, is adorned with intricate stonework, aging and ancient bits of judaica. It continues to hold Sabbath and holiday services. One of Prague's most notable personalities, the writer Franz Kafka, had his bar mitzvah here.

The synagogue is also linked to the legend of the golem, a supernatural being conjured up by Rabbi Judah Loew, the 16th century Talmudic scholar and Jewish mystic known as the Maharal. He created the monster to save the Jews of the quarter from anti-Semitic attacks. The legend suggests that the golem remains hidden away in the synagogue's attic, waiting to be awakened if the need ever rises again to protect the district's residents.

Loew is buried in the quarter's cemetery, one of the most visited and interesting spots in the area. He shares the cemetery with tens of thousands of others, generations literally stacked atop one another. For hundreds of years, between the 15th and 18th centuries, Jews had access to no other burial sites in the region.

Tombstones — some simple, others remarkably ornate, most covered with Hebrew names and text — rest uneasily in all sorts of positions. Many lean precariously, resting against one another; others have fallen and are covered by debris. Interestingly, the chaos comes together in a quietly poetic fashion. A sense of history and calm hovers lightly in the air.

It's a small miracle that the cemetery remains at all. It, the synagogues and other points of interest in Josefov, still exist because Hitler wanted to create a museum to a people and culture he planned to destroy.

While shuls and other buildings went untouched during the war, and ritual objects — sefer torahs, prayer books, kiddush cups and other types of judaica — were being shipped to Prague from across Europe, Jews in the city were being rounded up and sent to a nearby village.

Terezin, an hour's drive northwest of Prague, was initially turned into a ghetto, then quickly morphed into a concentration camp. The place is often remembered for the artists, writers and musicians who were sent there and, most infamously, as the "show" camp opened to the International Red Cross so they and the world could see how well the Jews were being treated.

In fact, the Nazis had orchestrated the visit, organizing bogus concerts and soccer matches and filling up shop windows with food and other goods the inmates of Terezin would never enjoy. Thousands of Jews died at the camp of malnutrition and exposure. Their bodies were cremated and the ashes later dumped into a nearby river. Thousands more were sent to die at Aushwitz, the Nazi death camp in southern Poland near Krakow.

Of the 55,000 Jews who lived in Prague in the late 1930s, only about 5,000 remained alive when Russian forces liberated the city in 1945. There are even fewer Jews in Prague today, about 1,500, but the community has actually grown in recent years.

The Holocaust remains a melancholy presence in the area, drawing tourists — really pilgrims — to what is left of the once vibrant Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. But Josefov is also a vivid reminder of a distant past, when Jews lived and worked and prayed here.

Get quiet enough and you can almost spot their shadows, walking along the cobblestone streets, calling to one another in nearby stores, praying in the shuls. This was their home, after all, and their collective spirit remains part of this place.

BENT WITH AGE: The Jewish Cemetery in Josefov (photo above) is filled with tombstones, some simple, others remarkably ornate. A quiet sense of peace and order hovers lightly over the area, the final resting spot for thousands of Jews who once lived here.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Staying young often just a matter of attitude

Just had two things happen in the span of 15 minutes that says something about aging and life.

I was visitsing my mom today and two nurses were there to meet with her -- ask a few questions, take a little blood. I briefly introduced myself and one of the nurses then asked me if I was their client's "husband".

Right. My mom is 87 and looks 110. I know I've been showing my age recently, but do I really look like I'm ready for assisted living? I actually said to the nurse, "Are you kidding?" Then I explained that I was their "client's" very young, healthy, and particularly good looking son! I also mentioned that I might look a little weary at the moment because I'd just finished walking TWO HOURS at the river! Arrrrrrggg!

Fast forward a few minutes and I was back home, back at my computer, checking my e-mail. A friend had sent me a link to YouTube that features a couple who have been married for 62 years -- the man is 90. Apparently they had an appointment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., spotted a piano in the lobby, and decided to take a few moments and play a duet.

The video captures something special -- joy, a sense of fun, life ... and, well, the ability to play the piano! There's that old saw about being only as old as you feel. Going by that measure, then these two folks are just making it out of their teens.

So take a look at the video HERE and the next time you grumble about feeling old -- or someone mistakes you for an octogenerian -- recall this couple and start thinking young. You'll feel better! Oh, it might help if you and your significant other can learn to play the piano really good and really fast!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Homeless guy's nugget not worth a Whopper

While standing in line at a local fast-food restaurant recently, the kid in front of me was having trouble coming up with the cash for his burger. I gave him a handful of change to move things along – impatience, not altruism.

The episode reminded me of an encounter several years ago when I was still working for the place with the printing press, downtown in the Land of Cotton. I had dashed out for dinner and made my rounds of the usual places, the ubiquitous chains that dot the corners of downtown streets, strip malls and suburban shopping centers.

I ended up at the “Home of the Whopper”, standing in line behind a homeless guy who was wearing a wrinkled and stained trench coat and holding a huge black garbage bag that apparently contained all that he held precious in the world.

He shuffled along, lost in thought until he reached the counter and a cashier waiting to take his order. It’s been a few years, but this is how I recall the little vignette playing out.

The cashier asks the man what he would like. He tells her. She rings up his order. They stare at one another. A moment goes by. The cashier tells the guy how much he owes. He then reaches into the depths of the garbage bag he’s been carting about and pulls out a rock, a very big rock, and places it on the counter.

The cashier stares at the rock, then at the man. Seconds tick away and I think I can actually here wheels twirling in the homeless guy’s brain. I can definitely here the shuffling of impatience behind and around me.

After another moment of silence, the guy speaks. “It’s gold,” he says, “solid gold.”

The young cashier glances at the rock, then back at the man. “I’m sorry sir,” she says, “but we no longer accept gold.”

The homeless guy offers up a world-weary shrug, suggesting this wasn’t the first time he’d tried the old gold-rock ruse, picks up his bag and heads for the door.

Without missing a beat, the cashier picks up the rock and calls out after him: “Sir, don’t forget your gold!”

At the time, I thought the cashier handled herself pretty well. It was all sort of funny and sort of sad. Today it would probably be a hit on YouTube or the makings of a reality TV show.

THAT AIN'T GOLD: Well, actually this is a gold nugget (photo above), a huge gold nugget. But, unfortunately, this isn't what I saw when a homeless guy was jonesing for a Whopper.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Southern comfort food and a piece of pie

I hunkered down Saturday night with good friends Susan and John, Margaret and Peter at Greenwoods, the popular eatery in the suburbs north of the Land of Cotton. It’s a special place with food that is plentiful and hearty, southern comfort grub that my yiddishe mama use to make – after a fashion.

Which isn’t all that surprising since the restaurant is owned and operated by Bill Greenwood, a nice Jewish boy who has managed to pull together a menu filled with southern soul food – pork chops and fried chicken, collards and black eyed peas. But there’s also lots of mainstream comfort food – pot roast and meatloaf, crab cakes and fish specials, mashed potatoes, creamed corn and other such veggies. On Fridays, just in time for Shabbat, Greenwood falls back on his Jewish roots and adds matzo ball soup to the menu -- it ain't kosher, but it ain't bad!

The restaurant is a rambling affair, a wooden shack that has been busted out and added onto, bits of eclectic art and hippified posters, a mix and match assortment of wooden tables and chairs, all nicely blended to create a one-of-a-kind dining experience.

The portions are huge, hot and dee-licious. But when I think back to last weekend – friends, laughter and good food – it’s the pie that lingers in my mind.

Now, of course, there are all sorts of sweet pies – cream, custard and those filled with fruit. And the bakers at Greenwoods know their way around an oven. Their pies are huge masterpieces, featuring flaky, tasty crust, filled with sugary confection and oozing bits of apples, cherries and peaches.

There were six of us and after we studified the menu a bit, we wisely chose two slices to share – peach and coconut. Trust me, it was plenty! The table was cleared by our young and energetic waitress and we made small-talk as we waited for our just desserts!

There was a bit of anxious maneuvering as the slices were strategically placed at one end of the table, six pairs of eyes zeroing in on the layers of sweetness as we fumbled around chatting about the weather and waiting for someone – anyone – to strike.

Margaret and the always lovely Miss Wendy, who, btw, has a fierce dislike for the distinctive flavor of coconut – her loss, our gain – dipped into the dessert, scooping up a bit of the chunky and fluffy stuff, then passing the slices on to Susan and Peter, then John and, finally, me.

Everyone sat in silence, the merry-go-round of goodness circling the table a half-dozen times or so, bits of peach goo and flaky coconut dribbling from our smiling mouths. I’m not sure, but I fear the last little taste was just one bite over the line, sweet Jesus!

Okay, I imagine this sort of thing happened with some sort of recreational drugs years ago in someone’s past. (I swear Peter, your secret’s safe with me.) But I think all of us, serenely sated at Greenwoods, can manage our sugary highs today.

Next time, I’m thinking Apple and Key lime might be the way to go. I mean, you know, just in case I’m near the restaurant like, ahhh, tomorrow!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Once upon a time, trains were the way to go

A recent posting by Elisson, neighborhood bud and blogger pal and mentor, had me choo-chooing back to the late ’50s. Ellison’s post was all about a delightful trip he recently took from here to the Nawth, much of it via trains.

I took a similar trip, one of my all-time great vacations. It was the summer of 1959 and I was just breaking into my teen years, still unsure about most everything. My Dad, who just about never went on vacation – he was the man behind a one-man business – decided to visit an old army buddy in upstate New York and, for whatever reason, also decided to take me along.

The trip was filled with a fistful of firsts that I still recall and cherish, even after five decades have come and gone. It was the first, and quite possibly the only trip my Dad and I took together without other family members – I have three brothers; the very first time I visited Washington, D.C., visited all the Smithsonian museums, the Lincoln Memorial, Arlington Cemetery and Mount Vernon; the first time I made it to the Big Apple, visited the studios of NBC, walked along Broadway, ate my way through the Carnegie Deli and – drum roll, please – attended a game at Yankee Stadium, sitting in center field, only a few dozen yards away from, that’s right, Mickey Mantle.

But I digress. It’s the trains that Elisson got me thinking about, those glorious, gleaming streamliners that glided on rails through the heart of America, connecting us all in a special way that is nothing more than a distant and vague memory today.

Yes, we can now get from here to there much faster. But something has been lost in the translation – elegance, civility, a sense of magic and adventure? Now it’s all about getting to our destination. Back when I and my father made our way north it was all about the journey.

And that journey began at a little station, just a mile or so east of the Chattahoochee River in west Georgia. We boarded the Man o’ War, sparkling and shiny and slow as molasses – can you say milk run! It took an agonizing three hours to make it to the Land of Cotton, 100 miles to the north.

But that was okay. The big city was a happening place, I could tell that as we scurried from Terminal Station in the Land of Cotton, over to the nearby and bigger Union Station – an imposing edifice of stone and brick, featuring a series of columns that stood as silent sentinels at the entrance of the impressive building and its cavernous main hall.

Both stations were reduced to rubble in the 1970s, the massive space turned into massive parking lots – a balancing act of sorts since cars were among the reasons train travel was headed the way of the dinosaur.

But I digress, yet again. The trip really began when our train was announced and its schedule blared across the waiting room, the names of villages and cities spread across the Southeast echoing around the massive space – now boarding on track 4, the Southern Crescent, with stops in Greenville, Spartanburg, Charlotte, Greensboro, Lynchburg, Manassas, Alexandria and Waaaaash-ing-ton!

The Crescent was huge, 14 gleaming cars that seemed to stretch on forever – two state-of-the-art diesel engines, coaches and sleeping cars, two dining cars and a lounge.

It was an adventure just to walk about, to sway and stumble your way through coaches filled with plush, velvet seats, then push aside the massive doors that separated the cars, and keep your balance in that space where they were joined together. If you were lucky, a porter was resting in this area with one of the windows open, the wind and countryside rustling by at a frenetic pace.

The rhythmic rocking of the train, the constant clickety-clack of the wheels sliding along the rails, is heady stuff for a 12-year-old. Everything about the train seemed fresh and new and exciting – white-jacketed porters and linen-covered tables in the dining cars; leather couches and stainless steel tables way back in the lounge car. This, as I recall, was a special place – smoke filled, the adults drinking their way through the night, youngsters like me staring through the back door of the train, watching the miles fade into the darkness.

Before returning home, we experienced all these thrills, and more, aboard two additional trains: the Pennsylvania between Washington and the Big Apple and the Nickerbocker – you gotta love that name – from Grand Central Station in New York to Albany.

It was a different time, when hope and excitement and the slight stench of diesel fuel and cigarette smoke filled the world, when everything seemed absolutely possible and dreams were the stuff of life. At least that’s what I remember now – and for today that’s more than enough.