Sunday, December 4, 2016

Trip to D.C. filled with monuments and memories

Washington Monument dominates the D.C. skyline.
Wanting and needing a little time off from the rigors of retirement, the lovely Miss Wendy and I decided recently to visit Washington, D.C. It had been a decade or so since we last traveled to the nation's capital and we were mildly interested in revisiting a few of the city's monuments and museums, but mostly looking forward simply to getting away.

Turns out the monuments are still around and still pretty much as they were when we last visited -- the Washington Monument remains a dominant landmark; so, too, the Lincoln, FDR and Vietnam memorials. Collectively, they say much about who we are as a nation and people; who we honor and what we cherish.

A few additional memorials -- one honoring the men and women who fought and died in World War II, another raised in tribute to the man with a dream, Martin Luther King, Jr. -- add both a needed touch of diversity and salute for the "greatest generation".

Visiting the White House and showing our colors!
There were a couple of disappointments, thanks to the work being done to spiffy up the Capital and White House for next January's inauguration of The Donald, our presidential yam!

The iconic view of both iconic structures was blocked by workmen building the inaugural platform where our 45th president will be taking the oath of office next month and the viewing stand where the president and his immigrant bride will watch the inaugural parade.

But I digress!

What lingers about at the moment is our visit to the Newseum, an interactive museum that promotes free expression and the five freedoms of the First Amendment. It's an informative and entertaining way to spend a few hours, focused mostly on the history and importance of a robust and independent press. I'm thinking it would be a perfect place for the legions of "freedom-loving" Americans, certain the "mainstream media" is hopelessly corrupt, to explore their tribal beliefs.

Lincoln Memorial glows majestically during evening visit.
Two exhibits -- one detailing how many countries control the media, the other memorializing working journalists killed in recent years -- offer a compelling argument for the import and impact of a free and vibrant press.

There are also galleries filled with historic broadcasts -- Walter Cronkite announcing the death of JFK and Edward R. Murrow's spirited takedown of Joe McCarthy -- and an expansive collection of newspaper front pages, detailing most everything of significance from the signing of the Declaration of Independence to the election of Barak Obama.

One of the most memorable, if melancholy, exhibits is a memorial and remembrance of the coverage of 9/11. It includes the front pages of newspapers the day after the attack, the mangled and twisted broadcast antenna that once topped the World Trade Center and a documentary featuring first-person accounts from reporters covering the tragedy.

It's about as up close and personal a telling as I've seen, filled with much raw footage that captures both the massive scale of the attack and the impact it had on people caught in the toppling of the buildings. The film also serves as a stark reminder of both the danger reporters often find themselves in as they go about their jobs and the good work they do in keeping the public informed in a meaningful and timely fashion.

Newseum's 9/11 exhibit includes broadcast antenna from WTC.
This rich brew of journalism had me thinking back on my career as a reporter and editor -- I spent 40 years working for newspapers across the Southeast -- and the front row seat I had to the ups and downs of this stuff we call news.

It's been a while, given the turmoil that characterized my last few years in the business, since I've been able to fondly recall the work that I and my colleagues managed during the last decades of the 20th century; the "golden" era, some might argue, of journalism.

Thanks to the Newseum, I was able to remember and feel the thrill I experienced all those years ago when I first walked into a newsroom and the city editor handed me a press release to rewrite. It was a beginning! Little did I know at the time that, for me, it was to be the road less traveled; and, yes, it did make all the difference.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Aboard the Oasis and chasing the sun

Wendy, me and the Oasis of the Seas.
The crystal clear waters of the Caribbean were filled with small boats and jet skis, zipping about a small lagoon outside of Labadee, a quiet port on the northern coast of Haiti. I was in pure vacation mode, at rest on a lounge chair high atop a small city, the Oasis of the Seas, enjoying the view.

For nearly a week in late August, Wendy and I had been zig-zagging our way across the Eastern Caribbean, visiting Nassau, then heading a bit west to Puerto Rico and Haiti after a tropical storm and a medical emergency forced a detour in the ship's itinerary.

The change was of little import! Our goal for this holiday had less to do with the islands we'd be visiting then how we'd be getting to each port of call. Over the last few years, Wendy and I have been on several cruises to idyllic and iconic spots in Alaska, the Caribbean, down along the Eastern coast of the U.S. and, most memorably, a transatlantic voyage that had us traveling from Italy to Florida, with stops in a half-dozen or so ports in Spain, the island of Majorca and the Azores.

The trips were grand and all of them were on ships that had once been considered huge, but by today's standards were of modest size: 1,500 or so passengers with a crew of about a 1,000.

I was curious what it would be like to travel aboard one of the new mega-ships. So finding ourselves at loose ends -- that would be Wendy and me -- and wanting a quick escape before summer's end, I booked a week's cruise on the Oasis of the Seas, one of three ships in Royal Caribbean's Oasis Class.

Royal Caribbean logo, amphitheater offer up signature look.
It's not exaggerating much to suggest these ships are floating cities. They comfortably hold in excess of 6,000 guests and have a crew of well over 2,000. They are huge and hefty, displacing approximately 100,000 metric tons -- just slightly less, Wikipedia reports, than that of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier.

The Oasis is broken into seven distinct neighborhoods that house at least two dozen dining options and more bars then you'll find on Bourbon Street; a half dozen or so pools and hot tubs and a full service spa and gym; an expansive sports and kids zone, specialty retails shops and a duty-free store; a state-of-the-art theater featuring Broadway musicals and an aquatic venue for a one-of-a-kind water and diving show. Oh, there's also a couple of wave pools for surfer-dude wannabes, a miniature golf course, arcade, zip line, climbing wall and carousel for the kiddies and an ice skating rink featuring a world-class skating review!

Another way of capturing the enormity of the Oasis is simply spending a little time on the ship's Royal Promenade in front of the On Air bar that features a large digital ticker offering up an assortment of facts and numbers about the ship. They are staggering and stunning: 16 decks, 496 inside cabins and 2,210 outside cabins; 20 chefs and 222 cooks; 188 bartenders and 15 bar managers working in 37 front bars and 26 back of house support bars; 3,300 miles of electrical cables and 150 miles of piping; 968,751 square feet of carpeting and 86,111 square feet of windows; 7,000 unique works of art and enough paint used on the ship since it was commissioned in 2009 to create a path a yard wide from Boston to Los Angeles -- and back! Okay, I made up that last factoid. Let's just all agree that the Oasis is yuuuuge!

Central Park neighborhood a quiet oasis on the Oasis.
After much debate, Wendy and I booked a cabin overlooking Central Park, one of the neighborhoods on the Oasis that is off the beaten path. We had a view of a lovely garden filled with a pleasing blend of plants and trees, surrounded by boutiques, specialty restaurants and bars.

The park also featured the Rising Tide bar -- it can be raised or lowered between three decks -- and a geometrically-rich façade rising 16 decks that encircles and defines the area and creates a soaring atrium with the feel of a five-star hotel.

Much the same vibe can be found around the Boardwalk, another happening neighborhood that provides the signature look for Oasis class ships: a series of soaring decks surrounding a 750-seat amphitheater topped with the Royal Caribbean logo. The theater is framed by two massive climbing walls; bars and restaurants, including a Johnny Rockets; boutiques, an arcade, Ben and Jerry's ice cream parlor and a child-friendly and charming full-size carousel.

After checking out our room with its leafy view and wandering about for an hour or two, it became clear to Wendy and me that we could happily spend the entire cruise aboard the Oasis without ever spotting the ocean. Or not.

Surfer dude wannabes can do their thing on the pool deck.
It took only a little searching to find our way to a nearby bank of elevators -- there are 24 available for guests -- and zip up to deck 15. The sleek, cool and comforting look and vibe of the lower decks gave way to a splashy, watery playground of pools and hot tubs; a private solarium for adults and hundreds of lounge chairs at the ready for the thousands of guests who would soon be in search of a little fun in the Caribbean sun!

Off in the distance, the city of Fort Lauderdale shimmered in the afternoon heat while the vast Atlantic quietly and calmly beckoned. It was a good omen but, sadly, all was not perfect in paradise.

What makes the Oasis special is also what causes problems -- for some! Despite expert planning and attention to most every detail by the cruise staff, keeping 6,000 people happy can be a challenge. Bigger, it turns out, isn't always better.

The problems are small, but can prove irritating. Simply getting around a ship the size of a football field can be difficult, especially when elevators are sometimes packed and the only option is hiking up or down a dozen flight of stairs. Then there are the occasional lines for specialty shows and the longish wait to talk with service personnel.
Ship has over 2,600 cabins and can comfortably hold over 6,000 guests.

Foodies, meanwhile, will probably find the meals mostly forgettable. I was in the army and had no problem with mess hall chow. It was plentiful and filling and tasty in a pedestrian sort of way. So, too, the meals aboard the Oasis. There were notable exceptions, especially in the ship's specialty restaurants.

Okay, the really good news is that's about as bad as it gets; most everything else was picture-postcard perfect!

Only hours after leaving port on our way south to Nassau, Wendy and I dined at Giovanni's, an Italian ristorante in Central Park. The food was delicious, service impeccable and ambience warm and inviting. After dinner, we made our way out into the park, strolling under a cloudless and star-sprinkled sky.

The afternoon heat had given way to a temperate evening, a slight breeze finding its way up and over the towering decks that sheltered and protected the park. A few guests, like us, wandered about aimlessly, while others sat and chatted at several nearby cafes and bars. It was all together a pleasant scene that became even better when a string quartet began softly playing "Moon River"!

Apparently bedazzled, I wrapped my arms around Wendy and we slowly danced to the music and rhythm of the sea. It would seem that the magic of the ship had caught us in its spell and, at least for the moment, the Oasis was definitely much more than a mirage.

Friday, July 29, 2016

And now a toast for my daughter Lauren

Lauren moments after receiving her Master's Degree at Kennesaw State.
Lauren was sitting at our breakfast table, bent over a tablet as she put the finishing touches on an essay for school. I glanced down at her work and offered a few suggestions -- "want" should be "won't", "there" needed to be changed to the possessive "their" and, well, there really was no subject in the penultimate sentence.

Lauren wasn't happy. She tossed the pencil she was gripping onto the table and glared at me. It was the sort of look you might expect from a frustrated kid. After all, she was only 10 and still struggling mightily with the English language.

Fast forward a quarter century and my daughter is now a beautiful young woman, happily married with two children of her own. She also has two bachelor degrees and, just a few hours ago, was awarded a Master's degree in Early Childhood Education -- with honors -- from Kennesaw State University!
That's a pretty decent resume. It all becomes noteworthy and amazing when you consider she handled the added workload of going back to school while juggling a full-time job as a Special Ed teacher; serving on the board of our synagogue; raising a toddler, Bailey; and handling wifey chores for her husband, Josh.

Oh, right, she was also pregnant for much of the time and managed to give birth last spring to my second grandchild, Avi, during semester break. Now that's planning!

Lauren all dressed up and ready for commencement.
If there was any pencil tossing during her recent course work, I wasn't around to see it. Lauren did ask me to do a final read on a paper or two and, other then a few dangling participles and an occasional split infinitive, there wasn't much to edit. Go figure!

All those years ago, when Lauren was filled with potential and thrashing about to find the road that beckoned, it was hard to see exactly how she would, one day, get from there to here. This not knowing is one of the challenges that parents, wanting only the best for their children, are forced to confront on this journey called life. It's simply part of the job.

I never doubted she would find her way. I only wish I had the voice back then to speak of the future as a done deal. Lauren's beauty and grace, good heart and soul, meant that karma -- and other such spiritual stuff -- was always on her side and it was only a matter of time until her dreams became reality.

That's not to suggest it's been easy. In addition to the karma thing, there was also a lot of hard work, long hours and perseverance involved in the effort. But Lauren is a smart, focused and determined woman. Once she's set her mind on a goal she simply doesn't quit.

Wendy and I got an up close and personal look at her work ethic over the last month or so. After dropping Bailey at camp each morning, she came over to our house with Avi. We got the chance to spend some quality time with our grandson and Lauren got a chance to study.

On most days, Bailey also ended up at our home and we all spent the afternoon napping and playing, watching "Curious George" and eating dinner -- fish sticks and applesauce. Yum!

Even on the days when I was sore and tired from holding Avi and chasing Bailey from room to room, there was a sweetness that lingered about when Lauren and the kids left for home. I grumbled a bit to Wendy about being way too old for such work, but the quiet after the kiddie storm only served to remind me how special such moments are in life.

So if you happen to have a goblet of wine about -- or a glass of water -- then raise it high and join me in toasting my daughter on a job well done. You, Lauren, now have a special husband, two wonderful kids, three college degrees and a Mom and Dad who love you very much and couldn't be prouder of the accomplished young woman you've become. L'chaim!

Monday, July 11, 2016

Finally making it 'Uptown' in downtown Columbus

A bit of whimsy in Uptown Columbus.
After a short and eventful road trip across north and central Florida, Wendy and I decided to take a detour recently on our way back to Atlanta. That's how we ended up spending an afternoon in Columbus, the place I still consider home -- at least in a sentimental fashion -- even though I haven't lived there in 40 years.

We pulled off the interstate at Tifton and maneuvered our way along a series of state highways and secondary roads, passing through a half-dozen or so sun-bleached towns and cities -- Albany, Dawson, Lumpkin and Cusseta -- before pulling into Fort Benning.

The massive military base makes up a third of what the locals refer to as the tri-cities. Columbus and its neighbor, Phenix City, across the Chattahoochee River in Alabama, fill out the rest of the metro area.

After clearing one last rise in the road, the skyline of Columbus and its two skyscrapers -- the government center downtown and the headquarters of AFLAC a few miles to the east -- came into view. At first blush the city seemed a clay-stained vision of what I had seen on previous trips. The heart of the community was nestled in a bend of the Chattahoochee, sprawling to the north and east like a creeping bit of kudzu.

If rumors and news reports of massive growth and redevelopment were true, then what I was seeing from a distance had little to do with reality and much to do with my aging memory. Uncovering the truth of such reports, however, would have to wait another hour or so while I attempted to put the lie to Thomas Wolfe's assertion that you "can't go home again!"

First stop was to visit my folks at Riverdale Cemetery.
The first stop was a visit to see family and friends, all resting comfortably in the Jewish section of Riverdale cemetery off of Victory Drive. The Feinberg family plot, nicely shaded by a towering oak tree, is surrounded by the graves of the men and women who once called Columbus home and were members of Shearith Israel Synagogue.

It's here that my mother and father can be found; so, too, my paternal grandparents, aunts, uncles and a legion of cousins and family friends and acquaintances: The Hirschs, Kravtins Raabs and Myers; Shapiros, Cohens, Satlofs and Siegels; Levys, Behars, Scopps and Greens; Robbins, Funks and Witts.

Hidden away in an older section of the cemetery is my great grandmother, Bailey Feinberg, who was born in Eastern Europe in 1852 and died in Columbus in 1941. She's the woman my granddaughter, Bailey Levetan, is named after -- her great-great-great Bubbe!

My great grandmother, Bailey Feinberg.
All these folk, mostly immigrants from Russia and Poland, settled in the Chattahoochee valley a century earlier, bringing a bit of Yiddishkeit to the Deep South, creating a vibrant community that prospered and came of age during the Great Depression and World War II.

There were a few doctors, lawyers and accountants among them. But, truth to tell, they were mostly merchants, men who scratched out a living buying and selling stuff -- food, clothing, hardware and scrap metal; watches, rings, luggage and weapons. Stuff!

Some prospered. Others struggled. My father did both.

Wendy and I spent part of the next hour visiting the store where he managed to grow his business, Village Pawn Shop; and the site where he began the journey. Central Pawn Shop, on First Avenue between 10th and 11th Streets, is toast now; a mostly fond but fading memory of a different, simpler time.

It was a tiny place with linoleum floors and fluorescent lights dangling from the ceiling. Once inside, there was a jarring blend of merchandise: watches and rings; hats, caps, suits and leather jackets; tires and tools; pistols, rifles, shotguns and knives; luggage, footlockers and a wide assortment of musical instruments.

The store was hot in the summer, cold in the winter and filled with a bizarre menagerie of characters: addicts and prostitutes, professional gamblers, pool sharks and con artists; men and women struggling to get by and others hunting for bargains; cops in search of stolen merchandise and the occasional reporter in search of a good story.

Chattahoochee and RiverWalk big part of city's redevelopment plan.
Now, four decades later and this spot -- rechristened "Uptown" in recent years -- has been swept clean. The footprint across much of the area remains the same, but most everything has been reconfigured and remodeled. There's a decidedly upbeat and gentrified vibe that hangs lightly in the air.

Thanks to an innovative collaboration between the city's consolidated government, Columbus State University and Uptown Columbus, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the slightly sleepy and seedy business district has been re-imagined and revitalized. It's a happening place, attracting locals, students and the occasional tourist with a pleasant and eclectic blend of upscale restaurant and bars, retail shops and boutiques, historic buildings and a world-class performing arts center.

Perhaps most remarkable is the western boundary of the area, once a decaying eyesore filled with abandoned warehouses, overgrown thickets of underbrush and debris. Now the RiverWalk, a beautifully landscaped path, meanders alongside the Chattahoochee for 15 miles or so from downtown, alongside the city's historic district and Victory Drive, to the southern fringes of Fort Benning.

The path is wide enough to provide runners, cyclists and folks just our for a leisurely stroll plenty of room to exercise and enjoy the natural beauty around the trail. And if that isn't enough to get your heart racing, just know that Mother Nature, herself, has been given a makeover of sorts.

A few years ago the river was slightly rerouted and gussied up with some well-placed boulders to create a rush of whitewater for kayakers and others in search of a wet and chilly way to spend a few hours.

All that remains of dad's store is the address.
For me -- and I'm guessing for other folks of a certain age who once called Columbus home -- walking around Uptown can be a melancholy journey into the past. It's filled with warm and mostly happy memories, especially for members of the Jewish community whose relatives owned and operated a vast assortment of shops and businesses here.

My father owned a pawn shop on First Avenue. It was next to Suran's Furniture Store, which was around the corner from the Kravtin's Novelty Shop on Broadway. Next door were a cluster of businesses -- Blue Ribbon Shoes, Rainbow's Department Store and Tots and Teens -- all owned and operated by the Rainbow and Shapiro families.

Nearby, on the same block, was Aaron Funk's United Jewelers, Gus Mendelson's Fox's Pawn Shop and Sol and Harry's, a hugely successful clothing store owned by Sol and Harry Cohn. A block north was Phil Pomerance's Kiddie Shop, Charlie Stein's Huddle Shop and Victor Kiralfy's woman's store.

Turn the corner at 11th Street and walk a block east past Kirven's department store and Federal Bakery and you'd be just across the street from Miller's Delicatessen, home of the best corned beef sandwich (possibly the only corned beef sandwich) to be found in Georgia south of Leb's in Atlanta.

The businesses are gone, replaced by Uptown's move into the 21st Century. The changes, wow factor and all, can be a bit jarring and unsettling. Certainly what's become of my father's business is notable. All that remains of Central Pawn Shop today is its address, 1023, updated and prominently displayed across a green awning that welcomes folks to "The Abbey".

Turns out what was once a pawn shop is now a ministry for young adults, providing prayer, meals and financial support. Now that I think about it, nothing much has really changed. Given my dad's warm heart and caring soul, I'm pretty certain he was doing the same sort of mission work years ago in his little store.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

A place of peace to mourn the victims of Pulse

Memorial for the victims of Pulse at Dr. Phillip's Center. 
The first thing that grabs your attention is a rainbow of color filling a massive set of windows in Orlando's Dr. Phillip's Center. It rests above an equally expansive lawn, a magnet of sorts for people in search of answers.

On this melancholy and humid evening, two weeks or so after 50 people were murdered at Pulse, a gay bar only a short distance away on the southern fringes of the downtown area, several dozen pilgrims wander about in quiet reflection. The public meeting spot, at least for the moment, has been transformed into sacred ground.

After all, this is the place a week earlier where 50,000 people gathered to mourn and memorialize the country's latest victims of terrorism and gun violence; the same spot where President Obama and Vice President Biden stood, heads bowed, to share a nation's grief.

"The Vice President and I told them," the President said of his meeting with family members of the slain, "that our hearts are broken, too, but we stand with you and that we are here for you, and that we are remembering those who you loved so deeply."

From a distance, the scent of jasmine offers a gentle welcome. The lawn, the site now of several impromptu memorials, is sprinkled with a jarring mix of stuff -- displays recalling the lives of the victims, messages offering prayers of hope and salvation; red, white and blue bunting and flags, burning incense (a sharp note of jasmine mixed with the coolness of lavender), and a vast array of flowers and flickering candles.

There are also hundreds of hand-written notes from friends, playful trinkets and spiritual gifts -- a small crucifix and rosary, a time-worn Bible and a tiny box holding soil, an attached note explaining, "from the Holy Land".

Flags, photos, cards and trinkets part of massive memorial.
On closer inspection, after days beneath an unforgiving sun and the torrid heat of central Florida, I note the flowers have begun to wilt, letters of love and remembrance to wrinkle at the edges and the colorful, patriotic banners to fade. In another few days, perhaps a week or two, the lawn will be swept clean and Pulse will become yet another painful memory of a place where evil once visited.

The names of the dead and injured in attacks stretching back decades are mostly forgotten in a world moving at the speed of light. Sadly, the locations are what we recall: Columbine, Blacksburg, Newtown, Aurora, Fort Hood and Charleston; San Bernardino, Chattanooga, San Ysidro, Washington, D.C. and Tucson.

The full list spans the country. No region is immune to the momentary madness of mostly boys and men directed by hate, fear and a grotesque anger fueled by job and personal issues, teen angst, mental illness and, most recently, cultural and ideological chauvinism.

As the sun sinks slowly below the horizon and the first stars of the night appear above the city's skyline, an agitated volunteer busies herself lighting a row of candles. A photographer kneels in front of a makeshift shrine and snaps a few photos and a family -- dad, mom and two youngsters --  take a final look around before disappearing into the shadows.

It turns out, for pilgrims and others, there is an answer to be found in this space. That becomes clear when I hear the thrum of music off in the distance. Downtown Orlando, after all, is filled with distractions for locals and tourists.

The noise feels jarring and invasive but it offers a painful, yet undeniable truth. Despite tragedy and death, heartbreak and misery, time never stops and life always goes on.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Stepping safely into the future

The New: Safe and sturdy and good for years.
The problem started with a small crack and a little creak, but now the lovely Miss Wendy and I are finally stepping into the new century with new steps.

Here at Grebnief central, we've managed to make our way into headquarters for years despite a shaky set of front steps that came with our home when we bought it decades ago. As I recall, Reagan was sitting in the White House, Dale Murphy was playing for the Braves and Indiana Jones was becoming a household name when we first stumbled into our new castle in the early 1980s.

Since we were young and agile, the rocky steps -- I mean rocky as in the steps were literally made of rock -- presented no major obstacles and seemed of little import as we zipped through time. Fast forward a few decades, and getting from here to there has, at times, become a wobbly affair.

And so it was that a few months ago I began searching for a solution that would both enhance the curb appeal of Casa Grebnief while making it safer for folks of all ages to make it into our castle. I won't bore you with the details; suffice it to say that I touched base with a variety of folks who offered a variety of ideas.

The Old: Rocky and wobbly and falling apart.
The good news is my good friend Irwin provided me with the name of a contractor who managed to transform my squiggly ideas produced on my iPad into reality. That he was able to do the work at a fraction of the cost detailed by other companies was icing on my metaphorical cake.

Now the lovely Miss Wendy is happy which, of course, means I'm happy, too. Both of us can now bound up our new entrance with little fear of stumbling or worry that the steps will crumble underneath our feet.

I'm thinking we're good for another 30 years. Well, at least the steps will be good. At that point in the distant future, I'm pretty certain it will be Wendy and me doing the creaking and crumbling.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Grand welcome comes with tiny cut!

Rite of passage: Grandpa Steve, Avi share special moment!
A bris is a memorable tradition filled with much high ritual, the moment when a Jewish boy -- for those who believe in such rites -- becomes part of the ancient covenant given by God to Abraham and his descendants.

It's part of the bedrock of Judaism, one of the numerous mitzvot, or laws, that are at the heart of the religion. It also offers up a distinctive mark -- both literally and symbolically -- that helped create and sustain the Jewish people for thousands of years, a community filled with rich and robust traditions, rites, ideas and laws.

Baby Boy Levetan's bris was such a happening, a gathering of family and friends to welcome him into our lives and community with love and good cheer eight days following his birth. Oh, there was also a mohel, trained in the practice of brit milah, the "covenant of circumcision," to whack away his foreskin.

Ouch and welcome to the tribe!

Say ahhhh: Avi with his mom and dad, Lauren and Josh.
It's also the moment when a child receives their name, when what already is becomes even more, defined and enriched by a back story that adds weight and context to a precious being at the starting point of life.

For those with even a smattering of Hebrew, baby boy Levetan's name -- at least his Hebrew name, Avraham Yisrael -- was first heard uttered by the mohel, Rabbi Ariel Asa, as he went about his liturgical chores. But it was left to Lauren and Josh to announce and explain the proper name that now will be forever linked to their son and all he will become.

Avi Kenneth Levetan, a euphonic blend of old and new, ethnic and modern, is inextricably meshed with the ganze mispucha, the entire family. The Hebrew and English names honor and recall a great grandfather and grand uncle from Lauren's extended family and both Josh's paternal grandfather and, most poignantly, his maternal grandfather, Ken Stone, who died last year.

Their collective lives offer up a rich tapestry of being that stretches back to the Pale of Settlement, spanning half the globe and the last century or so; men who both embraced the ancient customs of their ancient religion and communities while striking out for the New World and all the wonders to be found in America.

We are family: Bailey (l-r), Pops, Lauren, Avi, Josh and Bubbe.
All they were, in a fashion, will now be carried into the next century, a bit of spiritual energy comfortably resting in the heart of a sweet little boy.

Avi, sucking away on a cloth dabbed in a bit of wine, rested comfortably following the bris as family and friends feasted on deli delicacies at a celebratory meal, Seurat mitzvah, that is yet another custom of a folk who are defined by such traditions.

So this is my hope, Avi, a little postscript from your Pops on the day after your bris.

If at some distant time you find yourself surfing whatever passes for the World Wide Web in the next century and stumble across this post, you should spend a few moments reflecting on all that happened on this special day in 2016. Then take a moment to understand that even when you were little more than a vibrant idea and bit of flesh you were already part of something huge and ancient and, most importantly, from the very beginning you were loved.

With that, I'll sign off for now with this wish, offering up a priestly blessing (sort of) while quoting that ancient Talmudic sage, Mr. Spock: Live long and prosper, Avi Kenneth, live long and prosper!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Baby Boy Levetan makes his grand entrance

Only 2-hours old, Baby Boy Levetan ponders his future.
Life begins in an instant -- the blink of an eye, tick of a clock, a precious first breath. With a little push the darkness gives way to light and all that is and the potential for all that will be comes into focus.

So it was with Baby Boy Levetan, who joined our family and the world on Monday, April 25, at exactly 12:45 p.m.

It was a momentous day, of course, worth remembering even with all the static and noise and nonsense that jarringly speaks of a world gone slightly meshugga.

Johnny "Football" was indicted and John Kasich and Ted Cruz momentarily joined forces to best The Donald; President Obama announced that trade deals are good for the U.S. and every Republican on the planet agreed that he was wrong; the Hawks lost to the Celtics in OT in Game 4 of their playoff series and the Braves lost to the Mets in a season that was over before it really began; and Passover ebbed its way into day three, which means I remain five days away from a slice of pizza and big bowl of pasta!

Piffle, the mundane stuff of life; seconds ticking away while cosmic happenings wait gently on the horizon.

Josh, Lauren and the newest addition to their family.
Such are the musings I hold when writing this ode to Baby Boy Levetan, a gentle child just waiting to enter the arena, a baby that will one day carry memories of me and those of my generation into the 22nd Century -- Intimations of Imortality!

What wonders there will be out there, a time when technology will make this wondrous life we live today seem hopelessly simple and dark. The slight and tiny fingers that grasp my hand this moment might one day pound away at a super computer that easily changes the weather, or flips a switch that turns night to day.

I can only wonder at the sights and sounds that Baby Boy Levetan will experience in a life moving at the speed of light, a time of peace and plenty, I hope; a time when he, his sister Bailey and others can grasp and become all that they now hold only as potential within their tiny souls today.

Call such thoughts a prayer, if you like, the hopes of a dreamy Pops reading ephemeral tea leaves and pondering the future and the stuff of dreams!

Meanwhile, there's a bris a few days off, a bit of the ancient past filled with high ceremony and ritual that will carry us all into the future; a day when Baby Boy Levetan will be ushered into our Jewish community and, along with the rest of us, learn his name.

Stay tuned!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely ...

Worker tops pine hanging over my house.
Don't look now, but there's a man hanging out in my backyard. He's found a way to get up in the world, a job that you couldn't pay me enough to ever think about doing.

The guy was part of a package deal, one of a half-dozen or so workers who spent the day taking down a half-dozen or so pines hanging dangerously over my house.

Once upon a time, I was thrilled by the shade and greenery offered up by the trees. But after 30 years of growth -- where did the time go? -- I find myself holding my breath whenever the wind starts blowing and the trees start swaying.

Which brings me back to the guy in the tree. He cut his way up, trimming off branches until he managed to top the last 10 feet. After swaying about a bit he proceeded to work his way down, cutting off huge blocks of the trunk until there was none.

And then he did it again and again and again and, well, yet again.

The good news is that now, when local meteorologists start hyperventilating whenever the sky grows dark and the wind starts howling, I feel relatively safe in my comfy little home. Let them rant on with all that high-tech gear they now have at hand, offering up dire warnings of what can be expected when a low front out of the northwest slams up against a ridge of high pressure speeding in from the southeast.

It's just a bit of sound and fury, signifying, well, nothing.

And now for the  bad news. There are still a dozen or so towering pines in my yard; a benign grove of nature's bounty when all is calm, a menacing presence when the skies and my mind grow cloudy.

Do I think kablooey or just say phooey to the whims of fate? Should I simply hunker down and hope Mother Nature and karma are with me when clouds blanket my little corner of the world?

BTW, did I mention all this inner sturm und drang began when a 90-foot-pine came crashing down a few months ago, falling deep in my backyard into my next door neighbor's yard. Oh, and a few weeks later a second tree -- another pine, just as big -- fell into a second neighbor's yard.

The good news -- and, yes, there is good news here -- no one was injured and there was minimal property damage.

Meanwhile, I am now wondering -- and here, finally, is the point of this blog -- since no one was around when the trees toppled, did they actually make a sound when they crashed to earth?

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Walking, talking and exploring the world

Bailey out and about and having a ball.
Bailey and I were making our way to my car recently, maneuvering our way through the garage packed with the stuff of life -- boxes of old clothes, and little used cooking utensils, tools, garden supplies and a flat screen TV that was fried during a recent storm.

As she wiggled her way between the car and a couple of dusty storage bins, Bailey muttered over her shoulder: This is a tight fit!"

She tossed out the words with a tiny exasperated sigh that had me chuckling for an instant. But I had to admit she was right. It was a tight fit! What I couldn't quite figure out, however, is when and where in her very short life had she managed to pick up the phrase "tight fit" and learn to use it correctly.

To put this all in context, consider: I took two years of Spanish in high school and two quarters of German in  college. I also lived in Germany for 15 months, working closely with locals on a NATO base that also employed a handful of officers from Italy, Belgium and France.

Given my years of study and living abroad, it might seem likely that I was trilingual, certainly bilinqual, right? Au contraire mom ami! Truth to tell, about the only phrases I recall from my scholarly and experiential efforts are the oh-so useful queries, "Habla Español?" and, that's right, "Sprechen sie Deutsch?"

I absolutely had no idea all those years ago -- and certainly not now -- how to say "This is a tight fit" in German or Spanish. So, exactly what sort of magic are Bailey and other toddlers using to learn how to talk?

Mom and Dad cuddling with Bailey.
Anyone whose spent time around a baby knows that one of the grand joys of life is watching an infant grow and mature. The talking begins with cooing around the second month and quickly morphs into babbling about four months later.

By the time a baby celebrates their first birthday there's a really good chance they're talking gibberish -- and that's a good thing! Over the next several months they start using a few familiar words -- mama, dada, Cookie Monster, string theory! Okay, the physics reference is stretching the point; but only a year or so later, about the time the infant is blowing out two candles on their birthday cake, they know 50 or so words and managing to correctly use two-word phrases.

And then they're off to the races.

Bailey is 30 months young now, a bundle of endless energy that comes gleefully wrapped with an infectious smile and a crown of curly hair. Like most toddlers her age she's hit that maddening stage of life -- the terrible twos -- when her wants are much more important than her needs.

The fascinating part of all of this is the language thing -- I'm convinced that it really is magic -- plus her boundless curiosity about all those things that we jaded adults take for granted.

Kodak moment: Bailey, Bubbe and Pops at Shabbat sing
That means that both Bailey and I -- her parents and Bubbe; her fraternal grandparents, Janice and Steve; preschool teachers and extended family and friends -- are occasionally frustrated as she explores the world and wants to know, well, everything.

Her favorite phrase right now is "What's that?" My answers as we venture about, include: A leaf, a cloud, the moon, a car, a sign, an ant, the mailman, a rock, a bigger rock, a chocolate sundae with whipped cream, nuts, sprinkles and a cherry on top!

The good news is our mutual frustration turns to joy and amazement most days when Bailey, with little fanfare, hands me a leaf and announces that it is, in fact, a leaf; that she lets me know when it's time to go home and tells me to put her in the "car", then points out the clouds that fill the sky and the moon resting on the darkening horizon.

Meanwhile, the wonder of watching Bailey become Bailey can be found in a little vignette that played out earlier this week. She was spending the night with Wendy and me and we had just finished up the initial steps of preparing for bed: Fresh diaper, into pjs, books selected and read, then read a second time.

We were methodically working our way through stage two of the process, making sure her dolls, blankets, "lovies" and pillows were all in her crib and properly placed when, unprompted and delightfully, she began quietly singing the "Shema"! Those of you still with me and not a member of the tribe, just accept my word that this is a Jewish thing akin to saying your prayers before going to sleep.

Bailey finished up the little nightly ritual, then hugged me and her Bubbe tightly before snuggling under her blankets and waving us out the door.

Another day older, another day wiser, another day filled with love. Bailey had a good day, too. Oh, it also turns out she's bilingual. Bailey chanted the Shema, after all, in Hebrew!

Friday, April 1, 2016

Pastry, politics and hoping the madness will stop

My mid-morning snack at Sugar Cakes in Marietta.
It being a lovely day in the neighborhood -- thanks and a tip of the hat to Mr. Rogers -- I made a snap decision to get out of the house earlier this week and head over to the Square in Marietta.

It was difficult pulling myself away from cable news and the latest happenings on the campaign trail. It seemed that, yet again, the talk was skirting policy issues -- the economy and jobs, healthcare, education and such -- in favor of a bizarre and misstated position on "the right to life" and nonsense on nukes; arrest warrants, hot wives and all manner of ways to steal delegates from the guy with the golden hair.

I eventually settled in at Sugar Cakes, a patisserie and bistro hidden away on a bustling side street just across from the Square and a squadron of youngsters and their moms enjoying the fresh air while ignoring a yellowish-green wave of seasonal pollen -- can you say ACHOO!

Sugar Cakes is a tiny restaurant with big ideas, featuring a gussied up menu for breakfast and lunch. Since it was too late for breakfast -- the sun was high overhead -- and, at least for me, way too early for lunch, I decided on a mid-morning snack.

The choices were lovely and luscious, heavy on caramelized fruits and glazes, whipped cream and sauces. It all looked good to me! But after a moments reflection and jarring thoughts of my ever expanding midsection and finger-wagging physician, I decided to stick with the basics: coffee and pastry.

Okay, truth to tell, the pastry was a hefty blend of sugary stuff, whirled and swirled and topped with peaches; a delicious treat that was probably filled with a ton of calories. It's the sort of thing I would have shared with the lovely Miss Wendy if the lovely Miss Wendy had been around.

But she wasn't and the pastry was! And this sense of guilt, I'm sure, will soon be a fading memory.

Now I'm back in front of the tube, listening to the latest political rhetoric and spin on the blather from the campaign trail, learning -- once more -- how best to make "America Great, Again!" by building a wall and threatening to nuke our enemies.

I'm thinking it might be time to revisit the Square and grab another hit of sugar or, just maybe, go ahead and bury my head in the sand until the madness stops!

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Let's face it, some people are just jerks!

Spewing exhaust for fun and entertainment.
You can file this under disturbing and disgusting.

Wendy and I were out and about the other day when we spotted a bicyclist hugging the side of the road as cars whizzed by.

A pickup truck pulled alongside the guy, slowed down for a moment before the driver hit his accelerator. A plume of noxious exhaust completely enveloped the cyclist as the trucker sped off down the road.

It was clear the bastard in the truck purposely slowed so he could play his little game, knowing exactly what would happen when he stepped on the gas. Turns our this bit of nonsense is so common it actually has a name: "Rolling Coal".

Sadly, this little vignette says volumes about the world we live in today. And so it goes ...

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Might be helpful if God started a podcast today

At the risk of stating the obvious, it's funny how my mind works. I was listening recently to a cable news station when they played portions of two new political ads. The messages were predictable, but what caught my attention was what I heard playing in the background.

Both used generic bits of music -- quiet, yet expansive, slightly and lightly melancholy -- that triggered something in my thoughts and, after a moment, had me thinking about a film I'd once seen.

I couldn't remember any details -- name of the film, plot line, time and place. I did recall, in a blurry fashion, the male lead, but couldn't put a name with the face. The more it all lingered and swirled about, I was pretty certain that the film was centered in the 1950s, either produced then or evocative of that simpler time.

This all played out in a few minutes, morphing from a vague notion filled with bland street scenes to my muddled mind latching onto an actor who seemed to be puzzled about some sort of existential issue.

For whatever reason -- I have no real idea how my thoughts play out -- an image of God popped up in my mind and it seemed to be that the film, whatever it was, touched on the cosmic and divine in some fashion.

And so it was, still in my pjs and bathrobe and munching my breakfast cereal, I began googling films about the 1950s and God. After tossing aside blockbusters like "Ben Hur" and "The Ten Commandments", both produced in the late '50s, I added "small town USA" to my search.


The actor stored away in my memory bank tuned out to be James Whitmore and the film, released in 1950, was "The Next Voice You'll Hear". BTW, it's worth mentioning that Whitmore's wife in the film was played by Nancy Davis, the woman who would marry Ronald Reagan two years later and eventually become the "First Lady"!

The movie details the impact on a small community when, for no apparent reason, God begins broadcasting messages over the radio. The voice of God is never actually heard, while the film focuses on the reaction -- confusion, disbelief, fear and faith -- the words have on the local citizenry.

The film was produced only five years after the end of World War II. Harry Truman was president, the Korean War was just beginning and the Cold War was just heating up. Relations with China were stretched to the breaking point and Russia, just a few months earlier, had tested its first atomic bomb.


This dark and jarring mix of woes had folks on the home front feeling a little skittish and filmmakers in Hollywood looking for a way to calm nerves while offering up a bit of hope with a tasty bag of cheesy bromides.

Given the sad state of the world today -- terrorist attacks across Europe and a weak economy that has yet to right itself completely following a global recession nearly a decade ago, a presidential election that has all the gravitas, at least on the conservative side, of a SNL skit and at least one scary candidate who seems to be a bizarre mix of Hitler, Mussolini and Bozo the Clown -- and I'm thinking it might be nice and helpful if God decided to make a sudden appearance across the World Wide Web!

"The Next Voice You'll Hear" ended on an ambiguous note while offering up a message of hope and unity -- essentially we're all in this together and everything is going to be okay if we pull together.

Sadly, I'm not at all certain if an entire pantheon of gods could right our woes today. As one notable blowhard with an awful comb over might say, "It's simply too yuuuuuuge of a job!"

Monday, February 8, 2016

Dealing with yet another yuuuuge win!

Like a few other folks, I've been caught up in the political train wreck that has been playing out the last few months as establishment politicians and a trio of outsiders on the right have offered up a dandy circus of promises and insults filled with xenophobic, misogynistic and racist taunts and tirades.

Their supporters say they're simply telling it like it is, political correctness be damned!

So taking a few ideas from a playbook that was last used successfully in Germany in the 1930s, a few of the candidates and their handlers seemed to quickly understand that the best political strategy in this brave new world is to make stuff up. In political and practical terms that means lying. To make it all believable, simply keep repeating the lie as often and as loudly as possible.

That's what the guy with the orange hair and yuuuge ego did for months, yakking away with the attention span of a toddler. He spent his time in front of yuuuuge crowds, making absurd promises -- Mexico is going to pay to build a wall to keep out all the murderers and rapists they're sending our way -- and tossing out meaningless rhetoric that he was the best, the brightest, the richest, smartest and most likable candidate hanging out near the fringes of the Grand Old Party! 

Oh, and he made sure to mention at every opportunity that he was a winner, a yuuuuge winner; winning all the polls with big numbers, winning really, really big.

Spoiler alert! The Donald didn't win in Iowa. He lost really, really big. In fact, he just managed to hold onto the second spot and, ironically, was beaten by the one person, Ted Cruz, who is loathed even more then Trump by establishment Republicans and members of the rank and file falling anywhere at all to the left of Attila the Hun.

Predictably, Trump managed to spin his second-place finish into yet another yuuuuge win, telling just about anyone willing to listen that beating out eight, 10, 12 or so other candidates was a mighty accomplishment. In fact, it was a decent showing, except for the fact he had been promising and expecting nothing less then total victory.

Which brings us to New Hampshire, the first state to hold a presidential primary this election season. Trump is leading in the polls and made it clear in last Saturday's GOP debate that he -- and all of us --  will win; win and win and win until we're tired of winning.

Given such high hopes, filled with bombast and hot air, I fear he's probably right, at least for himself and his legion of supporters. He's likely going to walk away with the most votes on Tuesday. Which means the rest of us will be walking away from New Hampshire, at least metaphorically, with a mighty headache and a yuuuuge case of  indigestion.

Stay tuned!