The Magnificent Seven

scale 1

So my employer has decided to up the ante on its wellness program by holding an eleven-week weight loss contest this summer.

Now, when I hear the term “weight loss,” I generally run the other way.  Well, maybe not run.  I am far too out of shape for that.  Turn my back and shamble away would be more like it.

I am what the doctors refer to as “morbidly obese,” as well as a couch potato and more than a bit of a food snob.  So a weight loss contest is way out of my league, to say the least.

I think about all the food programs my mother tried to put me on when I was growing up.  “I’m gonna put you on a starvation diet!” my mother would yell when we returned home from an appointment with the pediatrician, appalled and embarrassed at the numbers that appeared on the scale.  He had handed us a printed diet that included caloric values for foods with strange sounding names like kale and kohlrabi.  The sole item listed under “desserts” was 5-calorie gelatin.

I thought “diet” was merely a variant of the word “die” and that “exercise” was a dirtier word than the things my classmates scratched into the stall walls in the boys’ bathroom.  I wanted nothing to do with physical activity; I wanted to curl up in a corner with a book.  Nevertheless, I would be sent outside with a handball to bat against the garage doors.  Then there was the time with the punching bag and the time with the set of barbells and dumbells and the time my mother browbeat my father into hitting tennis balls with me.

My religious elementary school sent us out to play but really didn’t care whether I ran the baseball diamond or just sat under the apple tree.  Guess which one I did?  Junior high and high school phys ed was pure misery that I’d prefer not to relive by detailed description.  Being forced to assist my father with the yardwork was one of the low points of my life.  I got good at hiding and devised all types of devious methods of sneaking ice cream and cookies.  I blush to admit that at least one of those involved outright stealing.  Sigh.

Perhaps I can convey a bit of the idea of how prominent a role food played in my early life by pointing out that the gift I most begged my parents for at the age of six was a soda machine.

Considering the above, it should be no surprise to anyone that I’ve been massively overweight from toddlerhood until today, as I stand on the brink of senior citizenship.  Now, everyone knows how dangerous extra weight is to one’s health.  Obesity brings on a litany of diseases and drugs, most of which have come a-callin’ and then decided to take up residence like so many houseguests of questionable character who I cannot bear to throw out into the street despite the fact they have long since overstayed their welcomes.

Just take this weight-loss contest as an opportunity and a blessing, I tell myself, while in my heart I convinced that the whole thing is nothing more than an insufferable pain in the ass.

The Human Resources Department is calling the contest “The Biggest Loser,” named after the TV show.  Although we must have weekly weigh-ins like on the show (hopefully without the corny beep-beep-beep sound effects), I am happy to say that there are no five-mile jogs, treadmills or stationary bicycles involved.

Interested employees are to form teams of three to ten.  Success is judged not by the number of pounds lost, but by the percentage of body weight lost.  This means that I will need to lose somewhere between ten and twenty pounds for every pound that some of my already skinny coworkers lose.  Just when I curse the unfairness of it all, I am reminded that it will probably be more difficult for them to lose one pound than it will be for me to lose twenty.  Okay, point taken.

My employer has more than a dozen locations, so there are bound to be a lot of teams.  This means there will be a lot of competition.  I started asking around as to which of my nine team members wish to participate.  Seven of them said yes.  Seven!  Well, six plus me.  The rules say that now we have to come up with a team name.  I vote that we dub ourselves The Magnificent Seven.

I got the group together informally on Friday afternoon and promised them that I would not let them down.  I gave them the rah-rah talk about how we’re already good at teamwork and how this going to be a piece of cake.  Er, a celery stick and a carrot, I mean.  We might have to compete with ten or twenty other teams, but with a little determination, I think we have a very good shot at beating them all.

I still can’t believe I agreed to do this.  The easy way out would have been to just ignore this contest and smile weakly when I walk by coworkers’ desks and hear them regaling each other with stories of their successes.

There is something about being a supervisor, however.  You can’t just say “you do your thing, I’ll do mine.”  You have to be a leader, even (especially) when it’s not too convenient to do so.

And who knows?  Maybe this time I’ll finally keep the weight off and turn my life around.

 

My Mother’s Monopoly Set

Monopoly

Growing up in the sixties and seventies, my sisters and I were rabid devotees of every ilk and variety of board game.  We accumulated them slowly, as we usually had to wait until a birthday rolled around to acquire an addition to our collection.  However, I knew quite well that a well-timed letter to my spinster Aunt Iris in Florida would likely result in a postal package containing a board game arriving on our doorstep several weeks hence.  This was a bit like rolling the dice or twirling the spinner, as we did not always receive the game we had requested.  We eventually learned to accept this with a sense of humor, taking the opportunity to read the instructions and learn the rules of a game we had never heard of.

Of all the board games in the toy box, our hands down favorite was Monopoly.  Actually, this was one of the two games that wasn’t stored in the toy box (the other being Scrabble).  That’s because those games were property of my parents and permission had to be asked to drag them out of storage.

Our toy box was a dark wood crate with holes on either side for carrying that may have once served as a foot locker or hope chest.  As the years went by and the toy box was accessed with less frequency, this large, heavy object was exiled to the great outdoors, sitting under the overhang on the raised deck, two steps from the kitchen door.  In time, wasps and hornets found their way into the hole handles, making their nests within.  Exposure to the elements also caused the toy box to begin to rot, and in our teen years the entire thing had to be discarded, contents and all.

My mother’s Monopoly set was one of the originals issued by Parker Brothers during the Great Depression.  I wonder what it was like playing with that set in my grandparents’ one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx.  Mom’s sister was eight years older than she, so I imagine that by the time Mom was old enough to appreciate the game, my aunt was probably too occupied with high school and parties and boys to have had much interest in playing the game with her little sister.  My grandparents were always working, so I doubt that they had much time to play the game with her.

My first recollection of playing Monopoly was at the age of four or five, when I was sick in bed in our New York City apartment and, in the evening, my parents would come into the bedroom that I shared with my little sisters and spread out the board on top of the covers.  I didn’t fully understand the rules of the game, but I was fascinated by the strange street names, the colors of the different denominations of money and, most of all, the game pieces.  I would laugh and laugh at the thimble, the flatiron, the wheelbarrow and the top hat.  The green houses and the red hotels were made of real wood and the board was of heavy cloth material.

By the time I first played with Mom’s set, it had already been in the family for more than a quarter of a century.  We moved to suburbia when I was six years old, and the game took up residence in the lower center drawer of the dining room hutch.  This huge piece of furniture had a top part and a bottom part.  The bottom part consisted of two wide wooden drawers, one above the other, and two smaller drawers on the sides.  Above was the glass breakfront that proudly displayed Mom’s china and fancy “company” glassware.  There was a small space underneath the hutch, between the legs, just tall enough to slide in the wooden case containing Mom’s silver.  In a recent phone conversation with my mother, the two of us reminisced about the hutch, which over the course of thirty years began to buckle under the weight of the breakfront.  It was eventually donated to charity when my parents sold their house and moved to California twenty years ago.  I reminded my mother how, when the dining room curtains were open, the sunlight of the southern exposure would reflect off the glass doors of the breakfront and illuminate her good dishes.  I could feel her smiling through the phone as widely as I was.

When my sisters and I asked my parents for permission to drag Mom’s Monopoly set out of the hutch, they never said no.  Occasionally we would play at the dining room table, but more often than not, we spread out the set on the living room floor, the three of us sprawled out on the carpet with all of the game’s paraphernalia.

Well, not all of it.  We played with what was left after all those years.  By then, the board had been folded and unfolded so many times that it was in two pieces that we pushed together.  Some of the deeds were missing; we filled in the gaps by making our own out of sheets of my parents’ good typing paper, drawing our best efforts at facsimiles thereof, cutting them out with blunt scissors and using a crayon to create the approximate property color.  We figured we were probably missing some of the money, too; we didn’t really know or care.  When we ran out of a particular denomination, we would ask my father what to do.  The answer was always the same:  Make some more.  Which we gleefully did.

We were missing some of the tokens, too, but that never bothered us a bit.  There were still more than enough tokens for the three of us to pick one, and we delighted in moving them round and round the board.  We still had the dice, while the salmon pink Chance cards and the canary yellow Community Chest cards were more or less intact, so what could be wrong?

At best, our games took hours to play.  Often, they took days.  When bedtime came, we would simply leave the game where it was on the living room floor, particularly if it were a Saturday or during summer vacation.  The next morning, we’d wake up as early as possible and advance upon the living room, still in our pajamas.  We’d try to remember whose turn it was and we’d pick up right where we had left off the night before.  I recall several times when a game of Monopoly took the entire day, as well as other games that had to be aborted because there were places to go, things to do, meals to be eaten.  We would inevitably groan with disappointment; what could be more important than Monopoly?

Like just about everything else, as the years went by, Monopoly joined the electronic era.  It was the first game pack I purchased for my Game Boy in the early 1990s, and now, thanks to Electronic Arts, I play against artificial intelligence opponents on my iPhone.

I still smile when I see the stacked boxes of Monopoly sets on the shelf at our local Rite-Aid, and I think that perhaps some parent, coming in for medication for their sick child, will notice the game and pick one up to spread out on the covers and play for hours and hours, like my parents did with me so long ago in the Bronx.

Over the years, I have purchased modern Monopoly sets on several occasions on both coasts of the United States.   And although I still feel a thrill when I unpeel the shrink wrap and crack open that board for the first time, it can’t begin to compare to my mother’s old cloth Monopoly set from the 1930s.

 

Eighty

eighty

My mother called this morning.

She is planning a birthday party for my father.  His birthday is still more than seven months away, but she says he is making a big deal of it.  She wants to make sure to plan it well in advance so that my sisters, who live in distant states, can make it out here to California.

Well, yes, I’d say it’s a big deal.  My father is going to be the big eight-oh.

I took the bait and asked my mother what she means by saying that Dad is making a big deal about his birthday.  She proceeded to explain that he mentions it to everyone he meets, strangers included.  For example, when the bagger at the supermarket offers to carry my parents’ groceries out to the car, he says “No, thanks, I think I can still handle it.  After all, I won’t be 80 til November.”

As big a milestone as eighty represents, this means that in ten years, Dad will be ninety.  Now that is what I’d truly call a mind-blowing number.  Imagine the bash we’ll have then!

I have to keep reminding myself to be more realistic, however.  Who knows if he’ll make it to 90?  One part of me says “certainly, he’ll make it to ninety!”  But another part of me remembers that my wife’s grandmother recently passed away at 89.  As for my own grandmother, the whole family had planned to converge on Florida in honor of her 100th birthday.  She made it as far as 97.

Thus, we must celebrate while we can.  With all the fuss we make at our loved ones’ funerals, I think it’s more important to let them know how much they mean to us while they are still with us.

So yes, we’ll go out to dinner and have cake and all that stuff, but I’d like to do something to remind Dad of those special moments that will stay with me forever.  The way he would tell us bedtime stories and pretend to make us a “malted” by going through all the steps in creating this ice cream treat and then shaking the bed to imitate the electric mixer.  The time he granted my birthday wish (age 8) by driving me from our home in the suburbs into midtown Manhattan to visit the big 42nd Street library (I was a nerd even then).  The time he rescued me, a neophyte driver, in an ice storm, somehow knowing that my rickety old car wouldn’t make it up West Clarkstown hill without an expert coaxing and swerving in first gear.  All those late night walks to the beach followed by pizza slices at Vocatura’s.  The way he’d hug me so hard when I was going to through a very, very bad time.

Then again, I don’t want to make us all cry.  Perhaps my sisters and I should inject some humor into the situation by writing and performing a little skit or song in my father’s honor.  That could be difficult, though, as I doubt that I’d get much cooperation.  I barely hear from one sister and I haven’t spoken to the other in about four or five years.  I don’t hold it against them; it’s just that we have very different lives.  All of us being together is going to be awkward as it is.

Once I start telling stories, I know my father will bring out some of his own.  Like how he used to carry me up four flights of stairs to our apartment in the Bronx.  Or how, at the age of five, he took me on a ride in a simulated car at the World’s Fair and I started crying because I wasn’t old enough to drive.  Or how he wandered around in his car looking for me when I was ten years old and decided to try to walk to New Jersey without bothering to tell anyone.  (He found me.)

When you’ve been close to someone all your life, it’s amazing to discover that time and distance have no effect on how deeply they live within your soul.

My mother says that my father is getting old and crotchety these days.  But I don’t think he’s changed that much.  He still gets frustrated and directs some choice four-letters toward inanimate objects, commercials on TV, other drivers on the road, and sometimes, my mother.  Sounds like the same old Dad that I know.

So now I have to figure out what to buy my father for a present.  I mean, what do you get for a man who has turned eighty?  When my grandfather was in his eighties, we used to buy him a bottle of whiskey for his birthday.  But my father rarely drinks, aside for an occasional beer.  Clothes are always tough to buy for him.  He prefers wearing his old shirts and shorts, even after they’re stained and have sprung holes that could double as emergency exits.  Books or videos are always possibilities, but I’d be hard pressed to find just the right one.  I suppose there is always the old standby of a gift certificate.  Lame, I know.

My dad loves the Internet, to which we introduced him several years ago.  He is not a very social person, but loves to do research online and to peruse, in solitude, websites about old cars.  Maybe we should buy him an iPhone, download the New York Times top headlines and show him how to play Words With Friends with us.

Meanwhile, my mother is just concerned about what to feed everyone who will converge upon her house.  I don’t eat meat, my wife doesn’t eat seafood, one of my sisters is gluten-free and the other drinks soy milk, likes wine and most of the time doesn’t eat anything on account of her gastric bypass.

Don’t worry, Mom, it’ll all work out.  And don’t forget, next year it’s your turn.

 

On Friendship

hands

I’ve been thinking about friendship a lot lately, and I have a few questions.  What does it mean “to be friends with” another person?  And why is it that men and women seem to have vastly different concepts of friendship?

I ask these questions because the whole friendship thing remains a mystery to me.  I’ve always been more of a loner type, like my father.  The idea of willingly spending large amounts of time in the company of someone of the same gender has never really rubbed off on me.

In my Jewish elementary school, I had a few friends, but my mother urged me not to call them that.  “They’re not your friends, they’re playmates,” she’d insist.  In third and fourth grade, my favorite playmate was Chaim, but the next year we had a fight over some trivial thing, started pulling each other’s hair, and that was pretty much the end of it.  It would never have worked out anyway.  I hear he became super Orthodox, while I defected to the secular world.

Back then, it seemed that friendship was a kind of bargaining chip, coin of the realm that could be spent to purchase favors.  “I’ll be your best friend” was often the whining refrain when one kid was trying to coax another to do his bidding.

I had what I thought was a good friend in sixth grade, but then came the macrocosm of junior high and we drifted off in separate directions.  Even in high school, a year seemed to be the statute of limitations on anything approaching friendship.

I guess I’ve always done my own thing.  I never wanted the kind of commitment that friendship implied.  It was just too much work.  Why would you want to waste hours of precious time allowing another to cry on your shoulder?  Get a life, I would think.  If you need to unburden yourself of your problems, find a good therapist.  At least they get paid to listen to your insipid whining about your evil boss and your even more evil mother-in-law.

I do realize how fortunate I am.  I have a wonderful boss and a delightful mother-in-law.  I’m sorry that you don’t.  Sucks to be you, but I really don’t want to hear it, certainly not when it’s the same dumb thing over and over again.  I don’t mean to sound cruel and heartless, it’s just that I have problems of my own and I lack the emotional energy to deal with yours also.

I must say that, despite how cliché this has become, my wife really is my best friend.  She understands me on a level that no one else does.  She knows what I’m thinking almost before I think it.  I don’t feel comfortable making any decision without consulting her — not because I feel the need to ask for permission (although it doesn’t hurt!), but because she consistently has insights that never would have occurred to me.

The funny thing about my wife, though, is that, unlike me, she has many friends.  Some of her friendships stretch back to childhood days while others are of more recent vintage.  Either way, she has the knack for the proper care and feeding of a friendship so that it stays healthy and matures over the years.  I am envious.

The gender stereotypes surrounding friendship are many.  Men friends watch sports together; women friends go shopping together.  Men friends pump fists, arm wrestle, borrow each other’s tools and go out drinking together.  Women friends gossip about mutual acquaintances, swap kid stories and meet at Starbucks to get away from the house and console each other regarding their mean ol’ husbands.

Aha!  It’s obvious now.  Male friendships are largely physical, while female friendships are largely emotional.  No wonder women’s friendships are more sustainable.  The physical can only last so long.  The emotional, on the other hand, is much deeper and has the potential to continue indefinitely.

The problem with stereotypes, however, is that they are usually false, even when accepted to the point of becoming conventional wisdom.  Lately, I seem to keep running across guys who serve as emotional support for one another.  You see this on TV all the time, from the 1980s show thirtysomething to the current Mad Men.

Perhaps I am just a sexist old fart, but despite the feel-good man buddy stuff on TV, I believe that women tend to have longer, stronger friendships because they are often better communicators.  Even in this modern age, there are still plenty of men out there who don’t feel comfortable talking about their feelings.  In my experience, it is more common for women to be willing to share openly with others and to have the kind of empathy that is the stuff of which good friendships are made.  A lot of men could take a lesson from this.

As for myself, I am forced to conclude that my lack of long-term friendships is a product of self-centeredness.  Any type of relationship is an equation in which the two sides must balance.  In terms of quantity, you only get out of it as much as you put into it.  Or in terms of quality, the GIGO rule applies (garbage in, garbage out).

On the other hand, I don’t feel as if my life is in any way diminished by a lack of close friendships.  Between our extended family and my many acquaintances at work, there are more than enough significant people in my life already.

But I still admire those who cultivate friendships early and then nurture them for decades.  Somehow, that seems like something special.

 

Bug Off!

yellow jacket

I do not like bugs.

I know, I’ve heard it all, they were here before us and they’ll be here long after the human race has gone extinct.  Blah blah.  I just wish they’d go somewhere else.

Whether they are insects, arachnids or arthropods, to me they are just bugs, slimy and disgusting.  And unless they’re going to help with the rent, they’d better stay out of my house.

All kinds of colorful creatures have taken up residence here in the desert.  We have centipedes, millipedes, scorpions and hairy, poisonous spiders.  Then there are the reptiles —  the snakes and lizards that play among the cacti.

Honestly, I don’t mind if the critters stay out in the uninhabited areas of sand, but they really are not needed here in town.  There is nothing quite like the feeling of thinking you may have seen, out of the corner of your eye, a lizard dart around the corner and into the kitchen.  They may not knock or ring the bell, but believe me, they manage to get in.

Even regular garden variety bugs gross me out.  This not a new thing for me, either.  When you’ve lived in New York City, you know about cockroaches in intimate detail.  I grew up squashing them, both the regular kind that just went CRUNCH underfoot and the big ol’ ones we called waterbugs that could fly and went SPLAT (and made an awful mess) when you stepped on them.  In junior high, I did a book report on a volume with the unlikely title of Nobody Loves a Cockroach… or Fly, Ant, Bat, Rat or Other Creeping, Crawling Flying Pests which Menace Our Daily Lives.  My sentiments exactly.

For some reason, as a kid I was deathly afraid of the creepy, but harmless, arachnids that we called daddy-longlegs.  They seemed to spin webs in every dark corner.  We would destroy their silky residences with a broom, preferably one with a very long handle.

I did chase after, catch and collect butterflies as a kid, but to me, those didn’t count as insects.  They were just too beautiful.  So I killed them and mounted them on Styrofoam.

Things changed for me just slightly when my mother was going to college and took a course in entomology.  I learned the name Coleoptera and grudgingly admitted that ladybugs were actually pretty awesome.

My sisters and I used to pick fat, hairy caterpillars off my mother’s rose bushes and once, we set one of them in a jar with some leaves to watch it spin its cocoon on the way to becoming a monarch butterfly.  Whenever we returned home at night, my father would be the first to enter the house in the dark and grab the can of Raid to end the lives of any critters that appeared when he turned the lights on.  He was quite surprised the time that something flew into his hair.  When the lights came on, we found an empty pupa and a butterfly to shoo out of the house.

The thing I was really scared of was being stung by a bee or a wasp.  My mother would tell us horror stories of how painful that experience was for her, and she’d been stung more than once.  Beehives and wasp’s nests appeared almost every summer and had to be removed by my father.

Aside from the wasps and hornets, the insects I feared most were the fat, lazy yellow jackets, which seemed to come after you, particularly if you were wearing a bright color.  These guys were actually wasps, and they had a way of mistaking a person’s yellow or pink shirt for a flower.

Coward that I am, I still fear being stung by one of those things.  Today, for example, I opened the door to the patio at work, then quickly ducked inside when I noticed a yellow jacket hanging around our picnic table.  I had one of my coworkers go outside with a seat cushion as a weapon to chase it away.  Don’t go thinking he’s so brave; when a cricket gets into the office, he is petrified and I’m the one who has to capture it.  Sure, it’s an insect, and my life would not suffer a bit without it, but at least it doesn’t sting or bite.

But ‘tis the season, as our desert temperatures soar above 90°F and all the little insect eggs hatch, bringing the creepy-crawlies once again among us.  Sure enough, when I arrived home after work and opened my car door, there to greet me was another of those stinging things.

It wasn’t the yellow jacket’s fault.  I was wearing a pink tie and it mistook me for a rose.

 

 

For Hayden, On the Occasion of Your Dedication on Easter Sunday

Auntie Cute

Today, Easter Sunday, my little grandniece is being dedicated in church.  A feeble attempt at wisdom from a doting uncle.

Dear Hayden,

This is your uncle and aunt speaking.  As they say in the vernacular:  Yo, listen up.

We held you on the day you were born.  We drove all night to be with you and, wow, was it worth it!  We were awestruck by how amazing you were on Day 1.  We have yet to lose that feeling.  We don’t think we ever will.

We are so looking forward to watching you grow up and being a part of your life.  Living more than 600 miles away is starting to get rough.  We see a lot of driving in our future.  Hmm, it might be time to buy a new Haydenmobile.

So what do we wish for your future?  Every good thing in life.  Too many things to list.  But on the day of your dedication, we’d like to mention a few of the really important ones.

We wish you never-ending wonder.  You are already well on your way to this goal.  We cannot help noticing how much you enjoy colors and shapes and playing with your mobiles.  Keep going on your journey of discovery, Hayden.  We hope you remain curious about everything the world has to offer.  Never stop asking questions, even the really hard ones.  When you ask us why the sky is blue, you will send us scurrying to the encyclopedia, er, we mean to the Internet.  When you ask us where babies come from, we will change the subject.  We are looking forward to this roller coaster ride.  Buckle up.

We wish you education and learning.  Yes, we started a college fund for you on the day you were born, but not all learning occurs in school.  We hope you become a reader, that you read every book you can get your hands on, both the good ones and the bad ones.  It won’t take long before you know the difference.  We hope you cultivate a love of words and this amazing English language of ours. We hope the dictionary becomes your best friend, but we promise not to send you there when you ask us what a word means or how it is spelled.

We wish you abundance.  That is a pretty big word that means:  May you never lack for anything.  Abundance is not measured by dollars, or by how many toys you have, or anything like that.  Abundance is measured by how much good stuff you can fit into your heart.  Just remember:  There is always room for more.  We hope you have an endless capacity for love.

We wish you friends.  May you experience many deep and long-lasting friendships throughout the years.  We hope you become friends with people your own age, with old folks like us, with Abby Cadabby and Winnie the Pooh and Harry Potter.  When you find friendship, cultivate it, nurture it and cherish it always.  For it is friendship that will color your life in rainbow hues and season it with the most delicate of flavors.

We wish you fulfillment on whichever of life’s roads you choose.  We hope you do what you love and love what you do.  Life is like a great big fitting room, Hayden:  Pick what is beautiful and try it on for size.  If it doesn’t fit, try something else.  And when you find the one that fits perfectly, don’t look at the price tag.

We hope you remain sensitive to the needs of others, even when they are very different from your own needs.  Be kind to everyone, even when it’s really hard because they’re not being very nice.  Do not turn away from those less fortunate than yourself; they may never have had the advantages that you do.  Give of yourself.  Share your riches.  For you shall reap rewards far greater than anything you give.

Be brave and fearless.  As the Nike ads say, just do it.  Don’t become jaded.  Never let the word “can’t” creep into your vocabulary.  Don’t let the naysayers get you down.  They’re wrong, you know.

Stand up for what you believe in, cry out against injustice, do something, Hayden.  Do something good and right and awe-inspiring.  Speak your mind.  Take action.  Be bold and keep God at your side always.

We wish you peace.  As the years go by, may you look back in contentment at your many accomplishments and smile.  Do not harbor regrets.  Always try to do more and be more, but also be satisfied with everything you’ve already been and done.

We wish you appreciation of beauty.  May you be in awe of the sunset, may you count the raindrops on your window pane, may you stand on the beach and be mesmerized by the vastness of the ocean and its crashing waves.  As the Leeann Womack song says, we hope you dance.  And we hope you sing, play a musical instrument, draw, paint, write poetry and keep a journal.  We hope you find beauty not only in the great works of art, but also in the everyday — in your reflection in a puddle, in the whistle of a passing train, in the smile of a stranger, in the flower that pushes its way up between the cracks in the sidewalk.

And we hope you laugh.  Laugh often and long.  Don’t take yourself too seriously, Hayden.  Find humor in your daily life.  Stop to smell the roses.  Take a picture with your iPhone.  Tell a story.

We wish you gratitude.  Sure, your parents will teach you to be polite and say “thank you.”  But when you say “thank you,” really mean it.  Appreciate your talents and share them with others.  Count your blessings on a regular basis.

Be reverent.  Praise God every day for your many gifts, as we praise Him for the gift you are to us.  Pray.  As the Bible teaches us, pray without ceasing.  There will always be people who will make fun of you because of your beliefs, who will belittle the fact that you pray, that you trust in the Lord.  There will always be small-minded, mean-spirited people who will try to bring you down, Hayden.  Pray for them.

What other advice can we give you, dear Hayden?  Brush your teeth every day.  Use sunscreen.  Eat your vegetables.  Stay healthy.  Take good care of yourself so you can love your neighbor as yourself.  Oh, and text your uncle and aunt once in a while.  We may be old fuddy-duddies who live way out in the middle of the desert and don’t understand your music, your lingo or your passions, but we love you.

So, as we say in Hebrew, shalom.  Um, that means “peace, out.”

 

Passover Memories

Haggadah

My mother always kept a kosher home, which meant that we had two sets of dishes and two sets of flatware.  By the time my sisters and I were seven or eight years old, we knew the difference between the milkhig (dairy) patterns and the fleishig (meat) ones.  We never mixed dairy and meat at the same meal; the food that was served dictated which dishes and utensils were used to set the table.

This division between dairy and meat may seem way too complicated, but when you’ve been doing it all your life, it becomes second nature.  In truth, we had it easy.  I knew some kids who had two dishwashers at home.  And rumor had it that there were some people who actually had two separate kitchens.

When Passover rolled around, we upped the ante.  Instead of using the “everyday” dishes and flatware, we’d bring out the beautiful glass Passover dishes and the fancy drinking glasses.  The week before Passover, my mother would polish her silver in anticipation of setting the Seder table.

In observant Jewish households, it is standard to have a dairy set of Passover dishes and a meat set of Passover dishes.  These two sets are used only during the eight days of the holiday, and then put away for an entire year until they are needed for the next Seder night.  In our house, however, we had only one set of Passover dishes, and they were used for meat meals.  Passover dairy meals were eaten on paper plates with plastic utensils.

The idea of using two sets of dishes is a product of rabbinic law and custom surrounding the Old Testament prohibition against boiling a calf in its mother’s milk.  On Passover, however, we have the additional obligation to ensure that the dishes on wish we eat have never been used with any of the leavened foods and legumes (hametz) prohibited during the festival.

My earliest memories of our family Passover Seder are from when I was six years old and we were living in a fourth floor walkup apartment in New York City.  Instead of eating at our little kitchen table, we dragged folding tables into the living room, pushing them together and covering them with a single white tablecloth.  The larger area would be needed to accommodate the Seder plate, the wine and water glasses and the array of delicacies that would grace the table.

When we finished recounting the Haggadah’s lengthy story of our enslavement in Egypt and subsequent emancipation, the shulkhan arukh (festive meal) would begin.  In our family tradition, the dishes were served in a particular order.  First, we would pass around a platter of whole hard boiled eggs; each of us would take one and dip it into the zaltz wasser (salt water).  The salt water is a custom that is said to refer to the tears shed by the Jews in Egypt due to the backbreaking labor forced upon us by cruel taskmasters as well as the mandatory separation of husbands and wives.  Next would come the gefilte fish, wonderful little fish patties out of a jar.  They would be served cold with a bit of jellied broth on a lettuce leaf with a slice of tomato.  The hot horseradish from the Seder plate would be our seasoning, the crunchy matzo our side dish.  Then came my mother’s matzo ball soup, which typically contained a slice of carrot and more than a few pieces of chicken.  Only then were we ready for the entrées, generally two of them.  Although they varied from year to year, one would be beef, the other chicken.  We would help ourselves from platters of vegetables, usually broccoli, carrots and boiled potatoes.

As a kid, my favorite part of the Seder meal was always dessert.  Among the “four questions” asked from the Hagaddah earlier in the evening is “Why is this night different than all other nights?”  For me, the answer was:  “On all other nights, we do not always have even one dessert, but on this night we have many!”  Cups of steaming hot tea with lemon slices would be served and we’d start the dessert off with fresh fruit salad or peaches or apricots stewed by my mother.  Then we’d open the packages of Passover sweets for which we’d waited all year.  There would be a sponge cake and a honey cake with slivered almonds on top.  There would be coconut macaroons and sometimes chocolate ones.  Treats might include coconut covered marshmallows, chocolate covered raspberry jellies or jellied candy “fruit slices” in a rainbow of orange, red, yellow and green.

By the time we were ready to sing the traditional Hebrew and Aramaic songs ending the Seder, the hour would be late.  I would be stuffed, happy and falling asleep.

That Seder when I was six years old was the first without my grandmother, who had passed away that January.  My grandfather led the Seder on the first night, but the second Seder belonged to me.  Grandpa had to be somewhere else and my parents didn’t read enough Hebrew to recite the service from our paperbound Haggadahs, free of charge courtesy of Maxwell House coffee.  Having been thoroughly versed in the ins and outs of the Seder in my first grade class, I felt up to the task.  It made me feel so grown up!

That summer, my parents bought a house in the suburbs and by September we had moved in.  The next Passover, I was seven years old and we held our Seder and our new oval dining room table.  Both leaves had to be inserted to lengthen the table sufficiently to accommodate our embarrassment of culinary riches.  As for me, I looked forward to presiding over the ceremony once again.  My grandfather was still back in the city he so loved.

In my Orthodox Hebrew school, nothing but the Seder, and Passover generally, had been discussed by my classmates for weeks.  We spent much time in class reviewing the parts of the Seder, the meaning of the prayers and verses recited, and the traditions passed down l’dor va’dor, from one generation to the next.

A few days before Passover, the rabbi who was my teacher phoned my mother at home.  “Why don’t you make your son a Seder?” he asked reprovingly.  Mom was taken aback by the question and assured him in no uncertain terms that we had a full Seder every single year on both the first and second nights of Passover.

My mother couldn’t imagine why he would even think such a thing.  Soon enough, the situation became clear.

In class, the rabbi had asked his young students “Who makes the Seder in your house?”  Everyone answered that their fathers did.  But I answered “I do!”  What I meant was that, because my parents couldn’t recite the Hebrew, that I led the ceremony.

It never occurred to me to mention that my mother spent days of planning and shopping and cooking and preparing for the very elaborate family event of the year.  So it’s no surprise that my teacher imagined me facing the sad anticlimax of the season by sitting in a corner with a Haggadah and a piece of matzah, singing to myself.

Ah, to be seven years old.

 

Freedom of the Press, and of the Tunes

newspaperradio
I suppose it’s a part of growing up. There are some things my parents did that drove me crazy when I was a child but make perfect sense to me now. And as may be inevitable for a man squarely in the grip of middle age, I realize that I have become my father.

Here’s an example of what I mean: Anytime I’d be in the car with my father (and I was always thrilled with the opportunity to ride up front with him), he’d tune the radio to either news radio or to easy listening music. I could handle that, but what really bugged me was the way he’d either flip stations or turn off the radio whenever a commercial came on. He’d refer to the results of the latter alternative as his favorite song, “The Sound of Silence.” (I hadn’t yet discovered Simon and Garfunkel.) He made it clear that he wasn’t going to have the idiocy of Madison Avenue forced upon him. Occasionally, he’d leave the radio on just so he could mimic the ridiculous ads (“rub it in, in, IN!”), which he’d usually follow up with a stream of swear words that I’d try my hardest to ignore.

Well, I don’t do the swear words thing, but I’ve now reached the age where I find myself changing the station or turning off the radio as soon as I start to hear a commercial. In my little town, this is no small statement. I refuse to listen to the Spanish stations or the Christian stations, which leaves me with exactly two choices. There is a powerful country music station over in Arizona and there is our little hometown radio station that plays an eclectic variety of music. I find our local station charming. I never know what to expect and I am often delighted. Turning on the radio, I may be transported back to another era by one of my favorite doo-wops, followed by something from Kenny Chesney or Carrie Underwood, then a classic from the Stones and a tune by Lady Gaga or Nicki Minaj.

With entertainment like that, it seems the least I could do would be to support the station by listening to the commercials that pay their bills and then patronizing those businessess. Sorry, Charlie. Nothing doing. I may have been bopping and drumming to the song that just ended, but when a commercial comes on, I am gone. Out of there. Splitsville.

Too often, both our local station and the Arizona country people are playing advertisements at the same time. Like my father, I’ve come to accept and even enjoy “the sound of silence.”

Back in my college days, I used to argue about this with a friend of mine. He’d insist that radio stations are businesses, and that like any business, their sole purpose for existing is to make money. Bah humbug, I’d say. The purpose of radio is to entertain me. If a station ceases to do so, either because of its music selection or because an idiot commercial has come on, it’s adios, amigo. That’s not fair, my friend would respond. I’m receiving a service for free, while the radio station has to pay its bills. Not my problem, I’d tell him. No one is forcing the radio station to entertain me for free. The public has every right to take advantage of its largesse. If someone has dropped a quarter on the ground, why shouldn’t I pick it up?

When my wife and I purchased our current car, we found that it “came with” a six-month subscription to Sirius XM radio. Thus, we discovered the world of radio by paid subscription.

The technology fascinated me. Just to think that Sirius XM could send a signal specifically to our car antenna, a signal from a satellite orbiting the earth that we could pick up but the car in front of us and the car behind us could not. Amazing!

The best thing about paid subscription radio, of course, is no commercials. Well, sort of. I’d happily sha-la-la and whoa-woah along with Sixties on 6 and Seventies on 7 in commercial-free heaven, but when we switched to the comedy channel, we found the routines constantly interrupted for commercials. Not just any commercials, mind you. Commercials for . . . ah, um, er, products of an “intimate nature.” And we were paying for this!

Well, for the first six months it was free with our new car. But after that we were paying for it. Yes, we shelled out the bucks and renewed our subscription several times. This, of course, is exactly what Sirius XM hoped we would do. Get ‘em hooked, then send ‘em the bill.

After about a year of this, we figured out that it just wasn’t worth it, particularly with the idiot commercials that interrupted our favorite stations. We could get that for free on over-the-air stations.

That’s when we started keeping CDs in the car us. We’d slip them into the disc player to entertain us on our frequent trips between northern and southern California. Of course, the CDs weren’t free, but at least we only had to pay for them once rather than being billed every six months for a subscription. And no idiot commercials!

The downside of the CD solution is that you end up playing the same music over and over. Not only that, but we realized that we tended to buy a CD for one or two favorite songs, while the rest of the album really didn’t interest us.

iPhone to the rescue! We already had iPods, and when we purchased iPhones, we had our music right on our cell phones. With the aid of a little adapter cord, we were able to plug in, set the music on Shuffle and go rockin’ on down the highway. I’d be singing along at the top of my lungs (off-key, of course) and before I knew it we’d be past Bakersfield.

This was better than CDs. We had exactly the music we wanted to hear. No idiot commercials and no B-side boring stuff. Of course, this didn’t come free. Every time we thought of another song we wanted, we’d just go online and buy it. We found that most songs were 99 cents or $1.29 to download. Very reasonable, particularly when you build your music collection a little at a time.

I love reading newspapers almost as much as I enjoy listening to music, and I don’t think I should have to pay for either one, at least when I am not picking and choosing my content. Back in my New York days, on Sunday mornings we’d go out to buy fresh bagels and pick up The New York Times. The Sunday Times was truly a marvel. It was thick and heavy, with many sections. I’d head straight for the “magazine” section and the book review. Then I’d settle back with Section 2, the famed Arts and Leisure section, where I’d ogle the full-page announcements of Broadway shows with a mixture of awe and delight. Of course, the Times wasn’t free, and its price increased as the years went by. But it was a once-a-week indulgence, and we could skip a week or two anytime we felt like it. It’s not like we had a subscription.

My parents didn’t even subscribe to the local paper. Both they and I knew that it would largely go unread and back issues would inevitably be stacked up in heaps to be carted out to the curb on recycling day.

But that was back in the Stone Age before the internet came along. Soon, I found myself being able to read The New York Times online for free anytime I liked, weekday or Sunday. This was wonderful, particularly after I moved to California, and then to a remote area of the desert where I couldn’t go to the corner and pick up the Times with my bagels and cream cheese.

Like all good things, this one didn’t last. It didn’t take long before the Times realized there was money to be made out there in the wilds of cyberspace. Inevitably, the Times began charging for its service. But you know me. I’m not going to pay for it if I don’t have to.

This is how I worked it out: First, I downloaded The New York Times on my iPhone. As I am constantly reminded by the insipid pop-ups, “Top News is Free. Subscribe for full access.” I don’t think so!

First phase accomplished: I get to read about a dozen top news stories on my phone for free every morning. Of course, the Times attempts to tantalize me into paying by dangling what I’m missing in front of my nose. I can click the “Sections” icon and view the headlines and the first sentences of all the great articles I’m missing in Opinion, Books, Travel, Arts, Dining, and on and on.

And so on to the second phase: Grab a scratch paper and make note of the titles of the articles I am really interested in reading but don’t have access to. Then I log into www.nyt.com on my laptop, find the articles I’m looking for, and read to my heart’s content.

Well, not exactly. Surely you don’t think the venerable Times will make you pay on the iPhone but give it up for free on Windows? Of course not. I am able to read ten articles per month for free on my laptop. After that, I am blocked by the ubiquitous message to subscribe in order to continue reading.

Fortunately for me, my wife doesn’t object when I log onto her account on her laptop and get to read another ten articles in the Times.

To paraphrase Billy Joel, “he’ll take what he’s given as long as it’s free.”

Brooklyn

BMT

YUMA, ARIZONA

I’m originally from New York City, where there are people who still talk about the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The Brooklyn Dodgers were a major league baseball team that went all the way back to the nineteenth century, played at Ebbets Field in Flatbush and moved to Los Angeles in the 1950s, two years before I was born. New Yorkers who remember are still bitter.

Even as a ghost of the past, the Brooklyn Dodgers remain an icon of that borough, as much as the Cyclone roller coaster and Nathan’s hot dogs in Coney Island.

My parents are from the Bronx, and when I was six years old, we moved to the suburbs. So I’ve only visited Brooklyn a few times.

My first Brooklyn experience was at the age of ten or eleven, when my sisters and I rode there in the back seat of my father’s metallic blue Dodge Coronet. They were there to interview a woman who had applied to be a live-in maid in our home. My parents had busy professional lives and the three of us were a handful. We had a spare bedroom downstairs, near the garage, which we referred to as the “creep room.”

My parents never could bring themselves to hire a “creep.”

As an adult, I had a wild hair one day and decided to embark on the solo adventure of driving to the New York Aquarium in South Brooklyn. This involved about two hours of driving to Manhattan, then down the West Side Highway, through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and all the way around the great western curve of the borough on the Belt Parkway. The killer whale was amazing.

My last time in Brooklyn was just before I moved to California, leaving New York for good. I attended an engagement party in Brighton Beach, making the long trek home in the middle of the night.

These days, I think of Brooklyn when I stop by the local Subway sandwich stop to pick up dinner on the way home from work. Subway has a sandwich called the BMT (not to be confused with a BLT, which they also sell), which is pepperoni, Genoa salami and Black Forest ham, topped with whatever veggies and dressings you want. Don’t ask me if it’s any good. I don’t eat meat.

I have to wonder how many of my fellow California and Arizona desert rats have any idea that the BMT, aside from being a sandwich, is the name of the Brooklyn subway line. Back east, the décor of every Subway sandwich shop location that I ever visited prominently featured a map of the New York subway system papered on its walls, from the IRT up in the Bronx, to the IND in Manhattan and the BMT in Brooklyn. I once remarked to my wife that the Subway in our little town lacks this New York memento. Au contraire, she responded. And sure enough, I discovered she was right. The pale yellow subway map wallpaper is so faded that I never noticed it until I stood right next to the wall and squinted. Only then was I able to make out the pale outlines of the J and Z lines to Utica Avenue and Broadway, and the D and M lines that rattle and hum all the way down to Coney Island.

When I lived in California’s Central Valley, I attended a synagogue where I occasionally heard the rabbi or his wife wax nostalgic about the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Borough Park. These days, however, I don’t think about Brooklyn that much.

Last night, my wife and I were eating dinner at one of our favorite restaurants in Yuma, Arizona. We struck up a conversation with the two women at the next table, who were accompanied by a little girl who was coughing her poor head off. One of the women went out to the car to get the kid’s inhaler.

Our neighbors explained that the girl has asthma, and that they had spent the day at the ball field where the dust had aggravated her condition. The three year old’s mother explained that she had planned to name the girl Olivia, but that when she was born, at the last moment she changed her mind and named her daughter Brooklyn.

I’ve heard of other people named Brooklyn, but the whole idea of naming one’s child after a New York City borough seems kind of goofy to me. Still, I suppose Brooklyn is a better baby name than Queens or the Bronx.

As for me, if I had a daughter, I think I’d name her Staten Island.

Fishamajig and a Fribble

fribble_304fishamajig

The Boston Business Journal reported today that Friendly’s Ice Cream is changing the recipe for its iconic Fribble, for the third time.  In most parts of the country, this ice cream drink would be known as a thick shake, or just a milkshake.  But in Massachusetts, where strange-sounding terms for everyday objects are the norm (anybody watch Southie Rules on A&E?), the Fribble is known as a frappe.  In Rhode Island, where I resided briefly, the Fribble would be called a cabinet.  I always thought the best cabinet around was Newport Creamery‘s Awful Awful (“awful big, awful good!”).  Yes, it’s a huge milkshake (although Californians think it’s a giant hamburger from The Nugget in Reno), but don’t use that word in a cafe in Providence or Narragansett (you’ll get a chocolate milk, shaken, not stirred).

Back in the day, the Fribble was made from ice milk, a commodity that today’s kids have never heard of.  Later on, Friendly’s started making it with frozen custard (as we called it in New York) or “soft serve.”  Now, Friendly’s has announced that it will be removing the soft serve machines from its restaurants, instead making the Fribble with “hard” ice cream.  Hallelujah!  The Fribble will now be available in any of Friendly’s large number of ice cream flavors.

When I was a kid in New York, Friendly’s Ice Cream was something of an institution.  No trip to Nanuet Mall (which, sadly, was demolished last year) was complete without an overstuffed Friendly’s ice cream cone, smothered in sprinkles (not “jimmies”), either chocolate or rainbow.

Later, in high school, when my family moved to Wappingers Falls, dinner at Friendly’s became a regular once-a-week event for us, either at 9 Mall in the Town of Poughkeepsie (now closed) or at the cutesy, Colonial style location on Main Street in Fishkill.  We used to joke about ordering “a Fishamajig and a Fribble,” because it sounded so funny rolling off the tongue.  The Fishamajig, for the uninitiated, is a fish filet and grilled cheese sandwich on toasted white bread.  In reality, although we ate plenty of Fishamajigs (and grilled cheese ‘n tuna sandwiches), we never once had a Fribble.  My mother always said it was “too fattening.”  We’d settle for a Coke or a root beer.

As if changing the Fribble recipe weren’t enough, now the Fishamajig is undergoing an overhaul as well.  That’s right:  Friendly’s is switching from pollock to haddock.

Nothing stays the same.