Thursday, November 12, 2015

Turning green on the blue Atlantic!

The seas grew choppy as we made our way into the Atlantic.
After spending a week sprinting across the Mediterranean, hitting ports in Italy and Spain, Wendy, I and 1,500 or so other passengers aboard Holland America's Zuiderdam headed for open sea.

The good news is we eventually made it to the Azores, 800 miles due west of Portugal. The islands are postcard perfect, picturesque bits of volcanic rock and greenery euphonically blended with quaint seaside villages.

The not so good news is Mother Nature was in a feisty mood as we maneuvered our way through the Strait of Gibraltar, leaving the relative calm and sheltered waters of the Mediterranean for the choppy seas of the north Atlantic.

For two days it felt like we had been transported to Coney Island and were riding endlessly aboard a roller coaster instead of a state-of-the-art cruise ship. There was much waddling about as we steamed into the sunset and much joking about having a bit too much to drink.

But most of the jokes and laughter faded as the seas continued to rise the second night out. The ship's stabilizers seemed no match for the churning and frothy swells that assaulted the ship and it was clear there was a growing problem when it was announced that Meclizine, an anti-emetic used for motion sickness, was readily available at the front desk for anyone in need.

The Azores offered views that were postcard perfect.
I was in need!

Food from the lavish buffet and gourmet dinner that had drawn my attention hours earlier was now sitting heavily in my gut. After an evening of ignoring the gurgling of my innards and growing nausea, I toddled off to our cabin, popped a pill and curled up uncomfortably in bed.

Fortunately, both my stomach and the Atlantic had grown quiet the next morning when the sun rose gloriously in the east and I was yet again ready for another day of cruising -- and touring.

Just outside our balcony the lovely village of Ponta Delgada in the Azores beckoned.

Wendy and I spent the day ashore, walking along quaint cobblestone streets, exploring and getting lost in quaint little plazas; snapping photos of distant mountain peaks and lush, verdant valleys; chatting with locals who pretty much ignored us and tourists in search of adventure.

Life was good and the calm Atlantic spread out to the distant horizon, a sun-kissed watery highway filled with promise.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Sagrada Familia: Gaudi's surreal ode to Christianity

Barcelona's Sagrada Familia remains a work in progress.
The lovely Miss Wendy and I have spent the last several weeks wandering about the Mediterranean.

We've walked along cobblestone streets in quaint and beautiful seaside villages and strolled up and down serpentine alleyways filled with ancient secrets; enjoyed glorious and transcendent sunrises peeking above the eastern horizon and fiery sunsets melting into the sea.

Our days have been filled with exotic sights and smells, the stuff of life for people in Italy, Spain, and the Azores; places like Cinque Terre and Pisa, Barcelona and Malaga, Ponta Delgada and Horta.

It's been an adventure, a journey filled with something new and exciting at every turn; and if there's been any meaningful work in the effort, it's been mostly about the creation of memories.

Columns twist and turn inside the expansive cathedral.
All of this is a long and rambling way to wax poetic about the Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi's stunning ode to Christianity in Barcelona. Construction on the Basilica began in 1883 and it remains a work in progress.

It takes center stage in a working class neighborhood, surrounded by shops and restaurants catering to tourists and across the street from a park where locals can be spotted playing bocce ball!

Like hundreds of other churches in Europe, it's a spiritual and artistic blend of stained glass windows, soaring columns and cathedral ceilings, intricate sculptures and elaborate ornamentation.

Unlike other such places of worship, Gaudi's vision seems pulled from the fertile and fevered imagination of an artist on drugs. It's a surreal happening of columns that twist and turn bizarrely as they soar to heaven, surrounded by biblical scenes chiseled with modernist precision and whimsy, all cloaked in vibrant colors filtered through stained glass windows framing the expansive space.

At the heart of all this beauty and madness is a statue of Jesus on the cross, soaring high above the floor of the structure, a beacon for pilgrims and tourists. He offers up a vacant stare, just one of the complex pieces making up this bizarre and wondrous place

No matter your belief or spiritual path, La Sagrada Familia is worth a visit. It's a transcendent, spiritual happening for the faithful, an artistic masterpiece for non-believers and lovers of art and a fully realized essay on the human condition for philosophers and poets.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Cinque Terre and Barcelona and Malaga -- oh my!

Blogger's note: Wendy and I are just back from a transatlantic cruise aboard Holland America's Zuiderdam. This feature was written during the trip and I'm just now getting around to posting it.

Leaving Livorno, heading west into the Mediterranean
Here I sit at the moment, high atop the Zuiderdam, glancing out at the Port of Cadiz in southern Spain just this side of the Strait of Gilbraltar.

The lovely Miss Wendy and I are a week into a 19-day transatlantic crossing and the good news is we're still speaking to one another!

We landed in Rome eight days ago, made our way to Civtavecchia, the port of Rome, where we boarded the Zuiderdam, and settled into our stateroom before sailing off to Livorno. It's a port that mostly serves as a jumping off spot for cities and sites across Tuscany.

We jumped and spent the following day in Cinque Terre, a lovely group of villages built over an expanse of mountainous terrain that rest magically and majestically above the Mediterranean. The views were splendid, at times transcendent as Mother Nature, as she is want to do, managed to euphorically blend land, sea and sky!

I'm pretty sure if you looked hard and long enough you could find it written somewhere that on the eighth day God created this special place! But I digress.

Village of Portovenere, just south of Cinque Terre.
Over the next several days, Wendy and I stayed busy checking out the Zuiderdam -- eating, walking, exercising, eating, going to shows in the ship's theater, eating, meeting and making friends, eating, shopping, napping and, well, eating.

We also toured and walked around a half dozen ports of call along the east, south and west coasts of Spain, including Barcelona, Alicante, Malaga and Cadiz, with a side trip to the nearby island of Mallorca where we rubbed shoulders with the locals in Palma and tourists in the picturesque seaside village of Soller.

Today we are steaming west, headed toward Ponta Delgada and Horta in the Azores. The skies are overcast and the seas mildly angry, rocking us gently as we stay busy walking, exercising, eating and, well, eating yet again.

We've been warned by the captain that the seas here in the mid-Atlantic will grow angrier over the next several hours, with swells expected to toss us about for the next day or so, then grow quiet as we reach the Azores. Perhaps I might skip today's afternoon snack! Then again, you can never be too rich, too thin or visit the Zuiderdam's buffet too often.

Up next: Stumbling across the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and being asked to remove my cap. Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Ode to Bailey on turning two

The first thing you notice about Bailey is her hair. It soars about her head, a mass of curls that seem to defy the natural laws of physics.

At first glance, as she walks my way in childish glee, her helmet of curls and toddler's gait announce to the world the sweet and innocent nature of her being. She, like most youngsters her age, is a bundle of energy and spirit.

Bailey at 2, too cool for words
After all, Bailey Boo is turning two.
Yes, it's true, she'll soon be two.
Blink, and the days will rumble by,
and then, oh gee, she'll be turning three;
then another blink and time will soar,
and Baily will be turning four.

Okay, that rhymes, but I digress.
So shake it off and fix this mess.
Another rhyme, so stop it now,
and don't get smart or have a cow.
Okay, that makes no sense at all,
except when Bailey "moos" then falls atop her dolls;
and laughs and screams for more ice creams!

Ice creams, really? Enough; I say enough!

Let's focus on today, the here and now when life for Bailey remains a hidden mystery to be explored; and explore she does! There are no drawers she doesn't open, no buttons or switches she doesn't push,  no tchotchke she doesn't examine or box she doesn't kick. All this play is really work, the stuff of life and the business of living when you're still in diapers.

It's also what defines the "terrible twos", that exhausting, fussy period when a baby becomes a toddler and when "want" becomes part of their vocabulary. There was a time, not long ago in Bailey's short life, when there were only "needs". Keep her fed and watered, rested and clean and all was good with her and the world.

Now, there is no toy, book, doll or game she doesn't want. At the market she wants a cookie, at a department store she wants -- in fact, has to have -- whatever she spots; and don't even think about taking her into a shoe store!

Here's the good news. Wanting is part of life; it's the creative force that drives the cognitive, emotional and social development of a child. It's what gets us humans from here to there and it's what drives parents and others to drink!

It's certainly what had Bailey digging deeply into a planter in our kitchen this week, wanting to understand what all that dirt would look like spread across the floor.

And yet all is forgiven, even forgotten, when she bursts into our home most days, shouting for Bubbe and looking for Pops; when she rests her head on my shoulder and wraps her arms around my neck; when she blows a kiss and waves goodbye.

Two years ago when Bailey was born, I wrote that her birth ushered in a season of joy. I'm happy to report that the joy remains and the adventure continues.

So happy birthday, Bailey Boo,
and never forget that we love you!

Friday, September 25, 2015

Of rings and things and the nature of love

Ring back where it belongs and all is well with the world
So there I was, lost in a dream, sleeping away the early morning hours and happy to be warmly adrift in my head and in my bed. Sadly, some cosmic force tapped me on the shoulder and I momentarily opened my eyes.

Big mistake.

It was early. The sun was just a vague smear of orange on the horizon, but I noticed that the light was on in the master bathroom and I could hear the lovely Miss Wendy rummaging about in a frantic fashion.

I don't recall if I called out, or if Wendy simply began speaking. I do recall the plaintive and anguished tone of her voice. Houston, I groggily thought, we have a problem.

And we did. Between heavy sighs, weighted down with equal measures of guilt and loss, Wendy shared this tale of woe.

As is her custom, Wendy was up early and off to the bathroom to wash up and prepare for the day ahead. Still wiping the sleep from her eyes, she was in the process of putting on her wedding band -- a magnificent ring of gold -- when it slipped from her grasp, tumbled into the sink and disappeared down the drain.


Wendy worked mightily at removing the metal stopper atop the drain, but alas, it wouldn't budge. The harder she pulled, the more certain she became that her precious ring was lost, buried deeply in the innards of our home's plumbing system.


So she went in search of a solution. Google offered up a number of possibilities. All she need do to right this wrong is pull apart a few pipes and dig through the bits of nasty stuff that swirl about a bathroom sink. Right; that was never gonna happen!

Instead of jumping into plumbing mode, Wendy wrote  out a few cautionary notes to me, detailing the problem and the hope that I would somehow continue to love her despite the loss of the golden ring that has bound us together for nearly four decades now.

It was during this melancholy exercise that I joined the conversation. I listened and nodded, then listened some more. Then I unscrewed the stopper from the drain. The ring was resting comfortably atop a bit of plastic, strategically placed near the top of the drain to keep rings and other such things from tumbling into the darkness below.

Wendy retrieved her ring. I went back to sleep.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

All you need to know about my 'waspy' new neighbors

Paper wasp nest hidden away in magnolia in our yard.
The lovely Miss Wendy was getting the mail earlier this week when she glanced up at a nearby tree and spotted something a bit odd and a little unsettling.

What she saw looked like a wrinkled basketball, aged and whitish and attached to a limb about 15 feet off the ground.

On closer inspection, it appeared that the object was either some sort of exotic fruit that was withering on the vine or, more likely, a mini-condo for an entire generation of winged critters!

When a couple of flitting thingies poked their noggins out of the complex it became pretty clear that Wendy and I were now neighbors with a fully-developed nest filled with fully-developed wasps.

At first glance the insects seemed to be 'paper wasps', members of the vespid subfamily polistinae that also includes hornets and yellowjackets. Here's the good news.

Paper wasps are the least aggressive of this group of pests. The bit of research I've managed since spotting their home suggests the insects have a live-and-let-live attitude; don't bother us and we won't bother you.

Apparently, that seems to be the case. Nests are usually created in early spring, a starter home of sorts that expands as the waspy population grows. By early summer what started off as just a queen and a few eggs can easily grow into a bustling hive of several thousand.

The flying hordes, however, have yet to cause any problems. If they've been partying this summer, they've kept the music turned down Low. And here's some more good news.

Summer is already burning itself out and with the first chill of fall our waspy neighbors will begin dying off. By Halloween there's a chance the nest will be haunted and even a better chance it will be empty. Only the queen will survive Mother Nature turning down the thermostat and Google tells me she'll be looking for greener pastures next spring to call home.

So if you spot me tip-toeing down my driveway on the way to get the mail for the next month or so, I'm just trying to be a good neighbor. I'm also thinking that should take the sting out of having to share my property with a bunch of wasps!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Listen up: 'B' is for Bose, Bluetooth and 'buy me'

Bose Soundlink Bluetooth headphones.
My hi-tech buying spree continued last week when I finally pulled the trigger and bought a pair of Bluetooth headphones. After taking a hard look at the market and my wallet, I stumbled across a Bose discount store in my little corner of the world and spotted a deal that seemed too good to be true.

For a month or so I've been researching headphones and earbuds, checking out department stores, specialty shops and other retailers to see what's available; then surfing the web to see if I could find what I wanted at a price that seemed reasonable.

Here's the problem I initially faced. What I could afford I didn't want and what  I wanted I couldn't afford! Sound familiar?

That all changed when I was out and about recently with the lovely Miss Wendy. We had an afternoon to kill, so decided to venture out to the picturesque little village of Woodstock, and spend an hour or so walking around a new outlet mall featuring a wide assortment of retail stores.

Such islands of consumerism and abundance are part of the fabric of the world today, especially
in America. It's just about impossible to drive a few miles in any direction and not spot a new strip shopping center or mall. After all, you really can't be too rich, too thin or own too many pairs of designer shoes -- or shirts, pants, skirts or dresses, electronic devices or gizmos!

Speaking of gizmos, hidden away between a Clark's shoe store and a Sunglasses Warehouse, was the aforementioned Bose factory outlet. Bingo! It only took me a moment to spot a display of on-ear Bluetooth headphones. The good news is they were being offered at a discount that meant I finally had found something I both wanted AND could afford.

It's probably worth noting that this most recent buying spree began a few years ago when I traded in my flip phone for an updated 'smart' model, that got me thinking about tablets and purchasing an iPad, that led me to updating my iTunes library and recently downloading a satellite radio app which, of course, meant I needed some digitally friendly and fashionable way to access all this new and magical stuff.

In the memorable words of our 43rd president: Mission accomplished!

Friday, September 11, 2015

Turns out father DID know best

Close is good enough when typing on an iPad
My father pretty much stayed out of my academic life. Smart move! He was around mostly to grimace and sign my report cards during my elementary and high school years, and hand over cash when I was in college.

But there was this one time during my senior year at Columbus High when he had a really good suggestion. Dad thought it would be a smart idea for me to learn how to type. He was right.

It's not much of a stretch to report, looking back on my life, that being able to type -- and I'm talking classic touch typing now -- had a profound impact on the road I eventually followed in what I would loosely term my professional career.

It also, perhaps, saved my life!

Turns out, after typing my way through college, that I was drafted, tossed into the army when the war in Vietnam was raging and most anyone capable of breathing and holding a rifle was hustled off to the jungles of southeast Asia!

Fortunately for me, I knew my way around a manual typewriter much better than an M-14. So instead of joining an infantry unit in the Mekong Delta, I ended up being shipped off to a NATO base in central Germany.

I like to think that I was part of the mopping up crew in Europe 25 years or so after the end of World War II and also one of the unsung warriors holding the line against the Russian menace when the Cold War was absolutely frigid.

Truth to tell, I mostly sat in an office filing away intel reports from operatives in the field -- okay, they were spies. And on the weekends I took advantage of Uncle Sam's good sense to drop me down in Central Europe by visiting as much of the region as time and finances would permit.

After finishing up my tour of duty, I continued whacking away at a typewriter, first on an ancient Royal at a newspaper in my hometown, then an IBM Selectric when I moved north to greener pastures. By the early '80s I was still pounding out news stories and features, but I was now doing my job on a computer.

Over the next quarter century the work and pounding continued, always on some sort of computer. The hi-tech boxes first got bigger, then smaller. But the keyboards stayed the same. I retired, swapped my office Mac for my first PC and still merrily typed away in pretty much the same fashion I had mastered as a teen four decades earlier!

That all changed a few years ago when I ditched my flip phone in favor of a "smart" update and learned how to send texts and emails on a tiny keyboard featuring a predictive algorithm. All I needed to make it work was to swipe my hand around the keyboard and come close to the letters I was aiming to hit.

I've now taken it to the next level. Recently I purchased an iPad after being warned that it's a great gadget for playing games and consuming info, but not all that handy for producing stuff -- blog posts, stories and features.

Au contraire mom ami!

The iPad uses the same sort of predictive algorithm as my phone, but with a bit of a twist. Instead of swiping at the screen, I use a hunt-and-peck method that seems a tad magical. As long as I get close to the letters I'm aiming for, the iPad manages to both come up with the right words and, drum roll please, auto-corrects my spelling while adding the proper punctuation.

I can only wish I had this sort of hi-tech device when I was laboring over term papers during my college days! Alas, that was not the case. But here's both the good and bad news. The world has caught up with me and today I can create works of blather from just about anywhere.

Stay tuned. BTW, that's not meant as a warning, just a statement of fact.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Aylan offers a glimpse into a world gone mad

On a long journey in search of freedom.
I was out and about recently with my granddaughter Bailey, helping keep her busy as her Mom and Bubbe did a little shopping.

We were passing a new store in a strip shopping center in our neighborhood when she noticed one of those wiggling promotional thingies that's animated with a fan, and shimmies about to attract attention.

Bailey, who will be two next month, is at that stage in her young life when she takes notice of everything. Her favorite phrase these days is "What's that?" So it wasn't at all surprising when she pointed at the rubberized thingy and quizzed me about it.

What did surprise me, however, is after a moment or so of watching it dance about, she lowered her head, covered her eyes and said, "I don't like!" She was frightened, a feeling I didn't know was yet even part of her emotional life.

I told her something soothing, lifted her up and turned her around; and in another moment or so she was smiling and giggling and asking me about a truck that was pulling into the parking lot to make a delivery at a nearby market.

I mention this little vignette, because it's what came to mind when I saw a photo of Aylan Kurdi on the web this morning. He's the youngster, only 3-years-old, who washed ashore on a beach in Turkey earlier this week, one of a dozen refugees, including his older brother and mother, who drowned after fleeing Syria and attempting to reach the Greek Aegean island of Kos.

Aylan was spotted by a soldier who was photographed cradling his lifeless body, a stunning image of loss that had me wondering just how puzzled, desperate and frightened the toddler was after being tossed into the sea.

There was no one about to pick him up and speak soothing words of comfort, no one to lift him up and save his precious life. It's an image that tugs at my heart.

It gets worse.

Another photo, snapped moments earlier, is a stark and melancholy portrait of innocence and death, a somber reminder that we live in a world that has gone slightly mad in recent years. At first glance the youngster seems to be napping on the beach, a slight figure at peace. The truth, unfortunately, is much darker, a bleak essay on life and loss.

And I think yet again: There was no one about to pick Aylan up and speak soothing words of comfort, no one to lift him up and save his precious life. It's an image that tugs at my heart.

We live in a country that is filled with gifts, freedoms and riches that make us the envy of millions around the world. So, at least for the moment, with Aylan weighing heavily on my mind, I find the constant static offered up by politicians and the talking bags of hot air on cable TV to be, at best, small and petty. Truth to tell, I think all the sturm und drang is morally reprehensible.

But I digress.

A little boy drowned this week, searching for what most of us already have. He was found on a beach and gently carried away. There are thousands more, just like Aylan, getting ready to hop aboard a dingy in search of a dream. Here's hoping there's someone around to help them all safely on their journey to freedom.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Stumbling along the information highway

We're well into the 21st century and I'm slowly getting the hang of this brave new digital world that has taken hold of most everyone not living under a rock or too young to have ever whacked away at a manual typewriter!

The good news here is I don't live under a rock. So I managed to dip my tootsies into the digital waters a few years ago when I purchased a laptop and quickly learned that it offered up all sorts of magical ways to keep me entertained and informed. That's not to say I was a complete troglodyte! I, of course, had been traveling along the World Wide Web for years at work.

But when I called it quits, my company's IT department didn't follow me home! That meant the little glitches that hid about in my shiny new computer often turned into big problems. As often as not, it seemed, I was stumbling about the information highway instead of gleefully surfing with the wind at my back.

But I persevered!

And after a time I was up and running, dashing about a wide assortment of sites and even playing a few online games, creating a blog and doing a little webified shopping. Life was good. So it seemed only natural that I take another little baby step into the digital waters and think seriously about replacing my flip phone with one of those newfangled smart ones.

When I learned that another generation -- baby, not phone -- was in the making and that I'd be needing a quick way to text my daughter and, of course, an easy way to document the moment-by-moment happenings of my soon-to-be granddaughter, it all became a done deal. Now I had both a shiny new laptop AND a shiny new smartphone!

Life, yet again, was good. But here's the rub. Apparently that old saw about the more you have the more you want is, um, true. After only a short time, I found that I was using my phone for a wide variety of reasons -- surfing the web, listening to music, checking out Facebook postings and such. In short, I had turned the little hand-held device into a mini-tablet and after awhile it seemed that, well, just maybe, I was actually ready to leap into the 21st century with both feet!

All of this is just a long and rambling way to report that I've recently purchased an iPad and, in fact, am using it right now to whack out this blog posting. That's the good news. Like most everything else in life, there is also a downside to having a magical device that easily links you to the rest of the world in all sorts of ways.

It only took me a few hours to figure out how to navigate around the tablet and only a few days to download an assortment of apps focusing on news and entertainment sites, games, music and videos. I now have access to more books, newspapers and magazines then I'll ever have time to read and a music library -- my own music, satellite radio and Pandora -- that will have me tapping my tootsies for the rest of my digital life; all of this within arm's length, seconds away throughout the day.

So, what's the problem?

Sometimes having it all can be a little too much. Less, as some philosopher once said, is often more.

I'll have to give that notion a little thought as I'm watching The "Dawgs" this weekend on the tube while reading a book on my Kindle and surfing the web on my shiny new tablet.

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!