Monday, January 9, 2017

Separated at birthday

In the midst of a world rocked by the horrific and driven by the substantial issues of our day, I continue to focus on the trivia. So that you won't have to.

You're welcome.

In my local paper, right near the comics and he crossword puzzle there is a curious listing. Celebrity birthdays. The paper lists all the celebrities who have a birthday on a certain day. And I read it.

I don't like birthdays. I find them silly and useless. I'm sure I have ranted about them somewhere and if you see me in person, be assured, I will bring it up. And yet, I look at the list whenever I happen o read a local paper. I just don't know why.

And the same thing happens on Facebook -- celebrity birthdays are marked and become trending topics and I am too much of an idiot to ignore them. Today is Jimmy Page's birthday, by the way. But it gets worse.

Every year, when my birthday rolls around, I either find a newspaper or check a website to see who shares a birthday with me. Like it matters. like it will change one year to the next. I'm not getting a card from these people (and the ones I send don't seem to reach them, as each on is filled with reasons that they should call me, and yet none has), nor do I subscribe to any sort of zodiacal significance which would make me, in any real sense, similar to others who were born on the same day as I. Also, the odds that a new celebrity will emerge who shares my birthday is low, and even more meaningless, not just in part because I find the entire concept of celebrity to be a sham at best and a meaningless bit of idol worship at slightly less than best. So why do I check?

Does the shared birthday reflect some unspoken, unconscious, uncanny bond which makes us, in a room of strangers, more likely to speak, become friends and shower me with gifts? Does it confer some referred power (at least on one day a year)? Am I then to be judged for the positive or negative based on the behavior and successes of "my" celebrity? Are those celebrities (a meager bunch, might I add) judged by my behavior? Do they even know I exist? Why is my name not listed in the newspaper? Why does their birthday matter more than mine?

So many questions, all because we think that the day on which someone is born matters. Or because a newspaper had space to fill one day.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

On the Surface

My computer broke. I don't know how else to put it -- my computer broke. I was using it to write the wrongs of the world, it lost connectivity to the internet, I tried to restart it, and then did a hard reset. So hard, it seems, that the computer refuses to turn on. Broke.

I have been using a Surface Pro for about 3 and a half years now. I got it because I wanted a small computer that could use native Microsoft RDP technology so I could work from home. Geeky, but it all worked out. I love the Surface. I don't love that the Surface now refuses to turn on. I have been holding it together (it being my fragile mental state) but just barely because I realize now just how reliant I am on that computer. It isn't that I can't access my music without it -- most of the songs I have spent the last 20 years stealing are stored in a cloud site so I'm ok.

It isn't even about many of the pictures: many are on Snapfish and the like. True -- it is the uncertainty because I don't recall exactly which pictures I haven't uploaded so there is a fear that I will lose what I can't remember. It isn't about my online presence -- I am using my wife's laptop now and will be back at work in the morning, using the ol' Netbook running XP that RDP's just fine into the work system so I am pretty solid there as well. It might not even be about the miscellaneous data files that exist only on my Surface -- bits of writing and other work that I never felt the need to back up. Yes, those are the most serious losses, but it isn't really about that.

It is about a little file called "things I do."

I keep track of all the websites I have memberships to, ID's with and passwords for, so that when I go to a new computer or have to log in again and have forgotten the website or password (or security question, or PIN) I can go to this one file. I just never considered what would happen if the computer on which I have that file was inaccessible.

And with ye olde tyme computers, at least I knew that, worst comes to worst, the hard drive could be taken out and attached as a slave via a ribbon cable and the data exported that way. I know nothing about the inner workings of the Surface but I suspect that it has no hard drive so I don't know if the tech people will be able to perform any data transplant. It isn't even the passwords, but more, the websites that I don't frequent frequently -- their names. I try so many things and then I export the job of remembering to a computer. This way, I can keep my local brain cells focused on the task of remembering my name and how to tie my shoes. So now, I fear not losing vital information (yes, that is daunting) but losing trivial information that I can't reconstruct.

I can find other ways to pick fights with virtual strangers. I can utilize other technology to tell the world about every time I sneeze, or look at pictures of a tuna sammich. But once I have lost my electronic mind, I am afraid that I won't be able to be fully myself anymore. My identity is wrapped up in the second tier bits; they are the over-tones that give the vinyl of my life a richer sound than a simple CD copy of my brain has. So I'm going to go to the mall tomorrow and beg that some kid one third my age can perform electronic CPR and bring my Surface back to life, at least for long enough that he can zap all the information into a new host.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

In praise of Sophomores

First thing, they aren't freshmen. That's a huge plus.

But on another note, a bit of context. I have cold. I feel OK but my throat has been scratchy and in pain and I have pretty much lost my voice. That presents me with certain problems and limitations. I'm a teacher and speaking to classes is sort of the center of my daily activities. That doesn't mean that I don't know how to assign busy work to keep the students at their seats, or that I don't occasionally cancel class when I can't teach, but my stock in trade is conversation -- engaging with the young people and exploring ideas.

Without a voice that is more difficult. Not impossible, but more of a challenge. So I met that challenge for the first half of class and then I was beat. Straining my throat makes me tired so I told my students that they could use the balance of class to work on their group project which has them isolate a problem in the world, research charities which deal with that problem, judge the charities and make a recommendation as to which one should receive their donations.

In case you are wondering, this does 3 things:

1. Shows them the religiously important concept of charity as a driving force in their lives, even in an apparently secular studies class
2. Prepares them for the real world experience of identifying problems, analyzing data and making recommendations
3. Gives them practice in research and data collection and evaluation

It also gets them working in a group, distributing responsibilities and following a process, step-by-step to build ideas, so there's that.

But I let them work. And do you know what happened? They quietly moved to sit and chat with their group members. I didn't cajole or yell. I didn't have to remind them.

Again -- a bunch of 15 year-olds, under no penalty other than that a teacher might get annoyed, start doing work and, as of 10 minutes later, are still working, many quietly, some conferring with other class members. I did not teach them this. I can not claim credit for the fact that they are not yelling, running around, leaving the room or otherwise misbehaving. There is an undercurrent of morality, of conscience and of respect that they have that predates my class.

So I, publicly, thank them, their parents, their families, their communities and all the other influences who handed off to me a bunch of well behaved, hard working, god, good kids. You should all be proud. The next generation is not doomed if it is populated by people like this. I just wanted to tell someone, so I told you. Not enough people point out the good stuff and my class, right now, is the good stuff.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

This is Jew-based post. Skip if we aren't your cup o' tea

I am a Jew.

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, doorposts?


Yeah. That's a thing. Jews, traditionally, place a piece of parchment in/on the doorposts of our houses -- the outside door and many of the inside walkways between rooms. The current practice is usually to encase the hand-scribed parchment in a decorative case. We call the whole thing a "mezuzah." When we pass through an opening, we kiss the mezuzah (touch it and kiss the hand, usually, or kiss the hand then touch it). The mezuzah parchment is supposed to be a reminder of God's power and protection -- as he saved us from Egyptian slavery, he protects us from other challenges and difficulties in our lives. Kissing the holy item is a way to reinforce his presence and remember his importance.

The word mezuzah more properly refers to the doorpost, itself. The commandment comes from Deuteronomy 6:9 (and 11:20)
9. And you shall inscribe them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates. וּכְתַבְתָּם עַל מְזֻזוֹת בֵּיתֶךָ וּבִשְׁעָרֶיךָ

The interesting thing to me is the strange word "mezuzah." It doesn't seem connected to doors or door posts. So I looked it up.

I happen to have a copy (h/t Dad) of Ernest Klein's "A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language" around the house (what? you don't?). He points out the post-biblical use (the "small roll of parchment") but traces the word back to the sense of 'something standing' and the Akkadian (it's always the Akkadian with these people) "nazazu" which means "to stand" and "manzazu," door post. So there you have it -- mezuzah means "doorpost" because the language the word developed from has it mean doorpost.


I don't think that a word that has such an important place in daily religious practice can be dismissed with a simple historical connection. Something still irks me -- there had to be other ways to refer to the doorpost, other words to choose from. So why "mezuzah"? I'm going to put my own interpretation out there. Is it based in anything? No. Does it have scholarship on which to rely? Dunno. Don't care. Is it found in someone else's writing? Maybe -- I haven't checked. As far as I know, it is my idea. Take it for all in all (h/t Shakespeare).

In Hebrew, there is a word for "move" -- zuz (that's the imperative verb form). If you are taking notes, Klein connects it to the Aramaic za/tremble. There will be a test. Interestingly, one of the various derivatives is listed as tezuzah, a New Hebrew construction meaning "moving, motion." (Klein this guy is good)

It seems to me that this mezuzah is then not about standing, but about moving -- when we move from place to place, when we make transitions in our lives, we must remember that our success and safety is due to a higher power. The mezuzah is about being able to go from one room, state or condition to another and invoke and rely on God's power.

As if that is't enough, I see the construction of the word as adding another dimension -- the mem prefix on the "zuz" center. The mem often indicates "the one who" (b-q-sh is "request" -- the one who requests is the mevaqesh; mevaser is the one who gives news (besorot); the teacher/one who teaches is the melamed with l-m-d being a root for learn). So the "mezuzah" seems to hint to "the one who causes to move." We are not the ones in control of our futures -- the higher power is the one who allows our moving from place to place, not just who protects us once we move. The Exodus was through God's power (and is what we are remembering via the mezuzah -- and there were no doors into the desert), not through our decision to leave. We must acknowledge God's presence and participation in even our smallest transitions by remembering via kissing the mezuzah.

Friday, October 21, 2016

My body and me

I often torture myself by wondering about a single hypothetical – would I rather lose my sight or my hearing. It is a thought exercise which helps me appreciate each, get in touch with what I value, and fall asleep.

I thrive on my sight (not specifically my vision, which is only so-so). I am a visual learner and love reading and watching television. To not be able to see my family member’s faces or appreciate the stars at night would be horrible. As a teacher, being able to see my class (and drive to work) is vital. So there you have it – I don’t want to lose my sight.

But wait. I love music! I am a student of sound – acoustics and the sound of voices. I catch subtleties others miss by paying careful attention to what I hear, direction, distance. I am enamored of sound. As a teacher, being able to hear y students and their comments is essential. So that solves it…I don’t want to be unable to hear.

And it goes back and forth.

But as I age, I have come to realize that there is a new player, one more likely to come to pass. It isn’t my surgically fixed ankle with its tarsal tunnel or plantar fasciitis, and it isn’t my constantly-in-pain back which, even after the discectomy still aches and sometimes hurts so much that I can’t move. It isn’t even my knees which creak and click so often that I think they might be haunted by a whale. It is my fingers.

Thank God, I have fingers and I try to put them to good use. But I have found recently that the “default” position for my hands (when I am not consciously using them) is slightly curled. I have to force them to straighten out. Now, they don’t hurt as such but they are starting to force themselves into a semi-circular shape unless I work at flattening them. True, I don’t know if I would rather fingers that don’t bend or don’t straighten, and I don’t intend to play that scenario out, but having my hands seize up in either way would be really bad.

As of now (late 40’s) I have 2 messed up thumbs (one as a result of a football accident and the other as a result of overcompensating after a football accident) and an achy middle finger (I carried a laundry basket, resting on that finger and think I pulled/tore something. Let that be a lesson to you. No laundry baskets). So that’s 3 down, 7 to go. And the others curl up when I’m not paying attention. I fear not being able to type or grab a pen. I worry about not having fine motor skills which would allow me to open a drink, or eat with a fork and knife. I worry that I am making it worse either when I ignore it or when I force my hands flat. I like my hands as much as I like my eyes and ears.

Aging is not just about the particulars of what is not working as well as it used to, but about the awareness as each bit and piece slowly goes on the fritz, and the concomitant worry. So I feel like a teenager in certain ways, but I am feeling like an older man in others.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Thoughts on Ne'ilah

A few words at the close of Yom Kippur.

There is a traditional sense about the final prayer of the Day of Atonement, “Ne’ilah” and I’d like to speak about it right now. I hope I don’t ruffle any feathers when I say this, especially right now, so close to the conclusion of the Holiday.

The traditional approach to this prayer stresses the closing of the gates of repentance. That final prayer marks our last chance to beg God for a year of life and such. The name, Ne’ilah, refers to a closing – a prayer offered at the last possible opportunity, one last push to get us sealed on the good side of things. We pray fervently and inspire tears, and use every last second before the Sefer Hachaim (the book of life, or of the living) is closed.

Bosh and piffle. Well, at least bosh.

Yom Kippur is a day of intense pressure. We feel this need to be done by a certain time. We feel the increasing pressure of improving ourselves and changing our lives. We start the day off as lumps of coal, blackened in our sin and we hope that through the affliction and beating of our chests that this pressure refines us into diamonds, so when Ne’ilah comes, we want to see ourselves clear and bright, a radiant Jew-el, no longer that raw carbon, but now, recognized by God as sparkling and precious. But what if we miss that goal? What happens if I am just not moved and the gates close? What do I have to look forward to? Omigosh, I exclaim, here I am, not a polished gem, but still an incomplete work and Ne’ilah is announcing that I am losing my status as an angel, able to supplicate n God’s very presence. I will be back to being some average shlub and God will see my failure!

But that’s just not so. That isn’t the point of Ne’ilah (I contend). Thus the claim of bosh.

A diamond, after intense pressure, is taken out of the dirt and raised up. But it isn’t beautiful. It doesn’t sparkle. It isn’t done. And we by the end of Yom Kippur, shouldn't view ourselves as done either. The stone taken from the ground is uneven, misshapen and dull. It then takes careful cutting and polishing for the true stone underneath to be revealed.

Yes, there are those people who emerge from the crucible that is Yom Kippur complete and radiant – with a perfect cut and with symmetrical facets. I am jealous of them. I am little more than the coal I began as. If I saw the gates as closed I would give up and the year would be lost.

Many elements of Yom Kippur hold a dual value and have self-contradictory meanings. The name of the day, itself is explained to be a day of atonement (with all the gravity and pressure that goes with that) AND a day “like Purim” with the joy of a festive holiday. Some men where a kittel, a long white robe reminiscent both of the grave clothing put on a corpse and the white clothing of an angel in God’s retinue. . We fast (and deprive ourselves in other ways) to create affliction and suffering and awareness of our humanity, but also ascend to angelic heights and transcend the physical.

Ne’ilah, also, has that dual nature.

Yes, this final communal prayer signals the end of the day and the closing of gates, at least in some sense. But don’t we also learn that the gates aren’t actually closed until Hoshana Rabba or Sh’mini Atzeret? And don’t we have dates called Yom Kippur Katan sprinkled through the year? And isn’t a central aspect of each new month’s prayers atonement? In fact, don’t I ask for forgiveness in each weekday Amidah prayer? Don’t some people recite confession every weekday morning? We take Yom Kippur with us throughout the year! How can the gates be closed?

I think that the secret lies in the name of the service, Ne’ilah. Yes, it means close, but it also refers to shoes (na'alayim). One of the five afflictions of the day is the law prohibiting the wearing of leather shoes (ne’ilat sandal) and I think that each of the five prayer services of the day is to remind us that when we are allowed to re-engage in that forbidden activity, we do it in a different way, befitting our cleansed status. So when we are allowed to put our comfy shoes back on, at the end of Ne’ilah, it isn’t so we can resume the same path that brought us to the threshold of Yom Kippur as a sullied lump of coal.

We speak of our ability to run in other contexts. At the outset of the day, many recite "Tefillah Zakah", by Rabbi Avraham Danzig, which points out how we have used our body for evil over the past year. He points out that God gave us legs, and we use them to run towards evil. When someone completes a sizable portion of learning and holds a siyyum, a celebration to commemorate that learning, he recites the Hadran which has in it the line “we run and they run – we run to life in the next world and they run towards destruction.” We ask for atonement for the sin of “our legs running towards evil.”

We can no longer be like that, like “them” – we have to run to something positive. In fact, we start the evening prayer immediately after Ne’ilah; we want to go right into the performance of a mitzvah to show our new direction. Many people go home and put up their Sukkah to continue the string of Mitzvah-keeping that this new person can pursue. But these acts are not the behavior of the completed diamond. They are acts of polishing. That uncut, unfinished gem must continue on that path and keep improving to cut away the unnecessary parts and reveal, through the trials of the rest of the year, the finished diamond.

We must put on our traveling shoes during Ne’ilah. They are the last item of clothing we don before we walk out the door, not the completion of our getting dressed, but the beginning of our journey. Sure, when we are in heaven, we can be like angels. But what will we be like when we are dressed like humans and have to walk through life? Will we follow the path of Yom Kippur for the next 353 days, or will our shoes have us running to destruction? Life is a slalom -- we dodge the obstacles and have to go through many gates.

So let’s put those shoes on at Ne’ilah and walk away from evil. Let’s use every opportunity to confess, repent and ask forgiveness and atonement that we are given over the next 12 months and actualize the potential, finding the polished and perfect diamond that is within us. We aren’t finished – we have just started. Those gates are closed, but we are ready for a marathon.

Wishing everyone a year of life, health and happiness as we run this race together.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

For Give a Jolly Good Fellow

As the Jewish New Year rolls around, an old man's fancy turns to atonement and repentance. So I have started thinking about life and my connection to other people. I have been lucky. I AM lucky. I am surrounded by people who generally pretty OK and I have lived a life interacting with a class of people which humbles me.

With a couple of exceptions.

And that's the thing. If I can recognize that in my many (many) years, there are a couple of people who still make me seethe (and not a calf in its mother's milk), and I cannot forgive them, then how can I enter the next year with a blank slate?

Rosh Hashana, the new year, is about starting over. It is about cleansing ourselves of the stuff from past years that drags us down. We ask forgiveness and we give it. We move on. But I can't. In these very isolated cases, I cannot find it in my heart to forgive. Maybe that's petty of me, but some hurts are so profound and so formative that I cannot move past them. [At this point, I was considering making occluded comments which described the three or so people on my list -- not enough that anyone would know who, but enough that I would think that maybe someone knew. I have decided not to give any details.] How do I look at myself and my life as recharged and refreshed if I can't let go of past damage?

And to make it worse, Shakespeare gangs up against me and has Portia try to manipulate Shylock, asking "How shalt thou hope for mercy, rendering none?" If I am not willing to extend that branch of peace, then how can I expect God, in his mercy, to have any mercy on me and forgive me for all I have done wrong?

Maybe my out is that they never asked me for forgiveness so I am not bound to forgive, unsolicited. But that doesn't sit well with me. In Hebrew, we ask for (and give) "mechila" and we have prayers in which we say that we give mechila to all those who have sinned against us. So haven't I already given mechila and shouldn't I just move on? Does this mean that my prayers are insincere? This keeps getting worse and worse.

I think that, for me, the answer lies in not equating forgiveness and mechila. The word mechila seems to have to do with erasing something -- blotting it out, and maybe, that much I can do. If I write on a paper with a pencil and make a mistake (it wouldn't happen, but just s'pose) and then erase it, the paper might be clear of that mistake but it is never pristine again. I can erase the action of hurt but not the phantom pain and residual effect of the event. I can give mechila and still not forgive what was done to me and the effect it had on me. Maybe I should be asking to be able to forget and that will obviate any need to forgive -- I won't remember so I won't resent. I will think that who I am is just who I am, not as the result of anything in (painfully)) particular. Maybe I can't forgive because that demands that I view myself as whole again and that's not how I ever expect to see myself.

So as is appropriate for this time of year, I whole-heartedly grant mechila to all those who have done things which have hurt me (take that, Portia), whether or not they ask, and forgiveness to all those whose behaviors I can rise above and feel complete even in the face of such hurt. I sincerely ask for mechila from all and forgiveness from those who feel able to grant it to (and forgetfulness from those who can't).

Maybe after another year of work, I will be more able to make peace with myself and therefore forgive those few who are still on my naughty list. I will do my best.

L'shana tova -- have a happy New Year.