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Little Mitzvahs: Assorted Writings from 2007

July 25, 2018

 

Little Mitzvahs

 

by

AG Goldman

 

Live each day

As if it were

The first page of

The last chapter

Of your life

 

We Must Not Be Quiet

January 1, 2007

 

If you hate the Iraq War or can’t stand Bush or were angry that Israel fought back in the north against Lebanon, you must speak up. You and I must protect our freedoms. We must stand up for our kids to have a world that will want them in it.

My father used to tell me stories about being a young Jew in Detroit in the 40s, that it was simply normal to feel different. As a Jew in school, in the army, in the workplace, fear of discrimination was a natural part of Jewish life.

In Livonia in the 60s, I never thought much about what it meant to ride on a bus twice a week to the United Hebrew Schools on Seven Mile Road and face a flurry of rocks coming at our windows on each ride. We kids just thought it was part of growing up.

Today, most of us “baby boomer” Jews live our lives as if we were typical Americans, working, going home to our families, watching TV. Meanwhile, Mel Gibson blames Jews for all the wars in the world. Jimmy Carter writes that Israel is no better than South Africa in its “apartheid” policies. Paul Wolfowitz, a Jew, gets targeted as the instigator who talked Bush and Cheney into starting the Iraq war. And a conference entitled, “The Holocaust: A World Prospect,” takes place, with over 70 Holocaust revisionists from 30 countries, sponsored by the Iranian government whose leader has called the Nazi Holocaust “a myth.”

It’s natural for baby boomers to feel uneasy about what’s going on in the world, but it’s easier to live our lives as if everything were okay, to believe that freedom and democracy we take for granted is a God-given right which won’t ever be taken away from us.

We are sincerely delusional, not that much different from Jews who believed the German government in 1941 would eventually come to its senses and act like a responsible government of decent human beings.

This is a very precarious time for Jews. The risky war to install democracy in Iraq has fallen apart. We are now arguing about how to get out of Iraq without the Middle East falling into even worse anarchy. Many of the countries in the world have ganged up and blame the “US/Israel alliance” for the bombings and shootings that are destroying thousands of innocent civilians every month.

But what can we expect? When Bush announced the onset of war in Iraq, many of us, including me, were skeptical and fearful but trusted our government to act wisely. We sat still, quietly accepting this war, almost all of us, the press, Congress, and other citizens. We prayed like Bush that we could bring the wonders of freedom to Iraq and that democracy would spread like flowers everywhere.

Yeah, and the Palestinians in Israel would suddenly accept the right to Israel to exist. Haven’t we dreamed before that Palestinian leaders might be able to keep peace and accept Jews and turn terrorists there to freedom-loving people who love life? Yes, in our dreams… which are now our nightmares.

So today the world is more dangerous, bombs and guns everywhere, terror in the streets of Iraq, Iran getting stronger, unparalleled genocide in Africa, a fence put up to protect Israel, and a fence to be installed in the southern U.S. border to protect America from illegal immigrants.

We are too busy to notice. We baby boomers must get our new HDTVs, go on our cruises, buy our stocks and clothes, go to work, take our kids to sporting events, and hope that the JDL, ADL, Federation, and rabbis will speak up and protect us from the crazy fanatics focused on killing Israelis, Jews, and Americans throughout the world.

We who expect the world to stay sensible and free must stop depending on our Jewish leaders and our parents to protect us. Our parents have continued to fund and aid Israel and our critically needed organizations.

 It’s our turn now. We have to speak up. We have to give of our time and money. We cannot stay quiet, worried only about ourselves and our families. Our brothers and sisters in Israel are surrounded by people and countries with a supreme goal: kill as many Jews in Israel as possible and then come for us in America.

If you hate the Iraq War or can’t stand Bush or were angry that Israel fought back in the north against Lebanon, you must speak up. You and I must protect our freedoms. We must stand up for our kids to have a world that will want them in it.

We must not be quiet anymore. We must write and call and email our thoughts and opinions to anyone who will listen and even to those who won’t. Otherwise, like so many Jews over 60 years ago, we will go quietly into the night and accept our fates…whatever fate will be.

 

“Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” Dr. Seuss

 

Becoming Fifty

January 3, 2007

It’s a milestone to reach fifty because living itself is a milestone.

What is it like to turn fifty?

Another day older, another year, another decade. The third day of the New Year is not much different than any other, except the phone calls, email greetings, gifts, cake, and in ten days, a gathering of some friends in celebration.
      

So what is it really like, becoming fifty, on the same day that Gerald Ford, our 38th President, is buried in Grand Rapids? Not many friends know that my middle name is Gerald. But what’s a middle name, anyway?
        

 It’s a milestone to reach fifty because living itself is a milestone.
         

When you see Saddam Hussein hung on TV, James Brown dead after forty years of high-intensity, scorched-earth singing, and watch the films of Bo Schembechler so soon after he passed away, you realize how much is fading away.
          

There is some vague comfort to see the Wolverines lose another Rose Bowl, the Lions finish the season with only three wins, and Yzerman still a Red Wings news story with the retirement of his No. 19 jersey. Our captain and the two football teams are stuck in time like the Simpsons, nearly 20 years on TV but still the same ages for the cartoon family of five.
           

I also have a family of five and we are thankfully getting older every year. As the joke says, it sure beats the alternative. I am blessed to have a wonderful wife and three great kids with all four of their grandparents still here with us today. It doesn’t matter how old we or our parents become, as long as we are still blessed to become older.
           

Not everyone is so lucky. When I visit my grandparents at Machpelah Cemetery on Woodward, I know that everyone is not granted long, happy lives. When I see the gravestone of my brother, Kenny, the finality of his sudden death 24 years ago still overwhelms me. I know 50 means even more uncertainty of life.
            

Last night in the weekly Partners in Torah held at Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, my partner and I read Paresha Vayechi and studied the last years of the lives of Jacob and Joseph in the final section of the Book of Genesis. Joseph lived to 110 years of age and Jacob 147. Jacob was the last of the forefathers buried in the famous cave of Machpelah, with wife, Leah, grandparents Abraham and Sarah, and parents Isaac and Rebekah.
            

In Partners, I sometimes feel struck by the simplest things. For me, knowing that the resting place of my brother, grandparents, and other family was named for the burial place of our great forefathers and foremothers feels very significant. I feel truly honored by this spiritual connection.
            

I feel honored as well to be a part of Partners, to be Jewish, to have had such honorable relatives, to have the people I have in my life now.
            

I am blessed and thankful to pray that my fifty-first year is filled with life and joy. I pray that Israel stays safe in peace and that the U.S. and the rest of the world become somewhat easier to live in…a little less scary.
            

Maybe the Iraq War will turn around or maybe even end soon.
            

None of us know what 2007 will mean and how we’ll remember it next year at this time. Only time will whisper…only time.

 

My 50th Birthday Surreality Tour

January 15, 2007

Thanks to my wife, Judy, I had a memorable 50th birthday party, with some of my best friends and a lot of laughs. It almost made me look forward to my 60th (NOT!)

My 50th birthday celebrations began a week before my birthday at my parents-in-law’s house with cake, ice cream, and a song.

At Rob Kaplan’s 50th surprise birthday party almost two months before his actual birthday, we celebrated with songs, games, food, and four cakes for lots of attendees, two for his birthday, one for another friend who had been born on New Year’s Day, 1957, and a surprise cake for me. At the end of the party, I was given the top layer of the cake with the “Happy 50th Birthday, Arnie” words in icing. That’s all that could fit into the game place’s take-out-square-dish-pizza-box.

On my actual birthday, January 3rd, my parents, sister and her family, as well as other relatives and friends sent cards, phone calls, email messages, and voice mail messages. Still, the real celebration didn’t begin for another ten days.

Ten days after my birthday, Judy, my wife, organized a night spent with some close friends and spouses that began at our house. When the friends arrived, they didn’t know what to expect but they knew that a limo was going to take them somewhere. The large limo bus had leather seats for up to 18 people, a TV, sound system, and room for lots of drinks and ice. We packed enough food and drink for a trip to New York City.

Our first stop on the tour was Como’s Pizzeria in Ferndale, the restaurant that sponsored our Morgenthau Bnai Brith baseball team in the early 80’s, the place we went after playing at Softball City on 8 Mile Rd, east of Woodward. There, I called my roommate, Steve Taffel, who lived in the Woodcrest Villa Apartments with me in 1980-1985 and who now lives in New York City with his wife and two kids and works for Prada.

Afterward, we went back to where we all had lived, near 7 Mile Road and Inkster in Livonia. The bus traveled down Rensellor, the street where I lived during my childhood, where three of the other passengers did as well. (Some of the parents still live in that same neighborhood.) We snapped pictures and shared a cake for another friend whose birthday was exactly four weeks later.

I received a call from Paul Sugar from Alaska, a classmate of ours, whom I hadn’t seen since he crashed my wedding almost 22 years ago. Then, Larry Pollack, an old friend whom I grew up with in elementary school, called from Phoenix exactly the same time we were driving down his street (and mine). We stopped to take pictures in front of his old Rensellor home.

I planned to take everyone to the old United Hebrew School on Seven Mile Road and say a prayer but we didn’t have enough time. After driving through the Livonia Mall parking lot where some of my friends worked during their teens, we went to our old stomping grounds…Clarenceville High School on Middlebelt Road. My wife and I had known that there was a scheduled “Snowcoming Dance” that night. We had notified the principal and a teacher (who remembered a few of us) weeks earlier that we hoped to stop and visit the school which I hadn’t seen in 32 years.

At Clarenceville, the principal took us on a tour of the building, the new media center, gym, as we talked about old times, past teachers, and gossiped about where everyone was nowadays. To the kids at the dance, we must have looked like old out-of-place fogies. When the DJ wanted to play something from the seventies, all he had was the soundtrack to Grease. The announcer made an announcement about the alumni visitors which made me feel both honored and old.

We’ve always laughed and joked about our education, partly because of some of our illustrious teachers but also because we remembered school fondly. We were part of a small Jewish community that was close-knit with many shared memories. We felt proud to be in the high school and marching bands (the ones who stayed in band) and generally we were a pretty happy-go-lucky group. Life seemed simpler then, insulated from reality. We lived during the last days of Vietnam and Watergate but all that seemed so far away. Instead, we were hooked on movies, music, TV, and friends.

I passed around a senior report card (the only one I could find) in the limo bus. We all laughed about my “difficult” schedule: Independent Study in English, Band, Typing, Gym, Lunch, and ending with two study halls in a row. My wife, Judy, who went to Farmington Harrison High, and the other alumni classmates laughed and lost whatever respect they might have had for my All-A high school status. I laughed when I told them that my friend, Rob, and I spent more time during senior year, studying the TV show, Green Acres.

When we returned after stopping at Sand’s Bar in Livonia and getting cinnamon crisps at Taco Bell in Livonia, we headed back from my 50th Birthday Surreality Tour to the reality of home.

That night, we all laughed and cried a little and drank and ate a lot and drove all over town, reliving a part of our lives that we won’t forget.

I can’t vouch for anyone else but I know that I will never forget the night I officially approached old age.  

 

“It is vital that people ‘count their blessings’; to appreciate what they possess without having to undergo its actual loss.” Abraham Maslow

 

Just Numbers

January 15, 2007

It’s easy to calculate the numbers of wounded and dead coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan every day on the Internet. But who am I to worry about numbers? I am just an American father, not a statistician, television analyst, or a soldier’s father who is wondering whether his son or daughter will soon become another statistic.

Since President Bush committed more than 20,000 additional troops to Iraq, I have been playing with numbers. 20,000 divided by 132,000 U.S. troops equals .1515, which equates to just over a 15 percent increase. 6372, the number of U.S. soldiers wounded in 2006, divided by 12, equals 531 per month. The number of U.S. military fatalities last December, 118, times 1.1515 equals just under 136.

The statistics of the United States dead and wounded have been remarkably consistent over the last three years. In fact, the number of dead for the last three years was 848 in 2004, 846 in 2005, and 824 in 2006.

I am familiar with formulas and spreadsheets in business. At the lock and security distributor I work for, we routinely calculate the costs of increasing stock inventories versus the anticipated sales increases. We then sit comfortably in a conference room, analyzing whether the sudden swells of stock are worth the additional risks.

The president, vice president, and their advisors must have sat in meetings for weeks, weighing the costs of increasing five brigades of 16,000 troops in Baghdad and committing 4000 more in the Anbar Province to give Iraqis better security, to insure what the president called “success in Iraq.”

Since the beginning of the Iraq War, there have been nearly 48,000 total U.S. “non-mortal casualties,” and 22,834 of them have been labeled “wounded.” What has not been calculated yet is the cost of caring for the medical and psychological needs of returning U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. A new Harvard study warns that the Veterans Administration is in danger of collapse if it does not receive a huge infusion of cash for the staggering costs already from 200,000 veterans who have returned from war.

It’s easy to calculate the numbers of wounded and dead coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan every day on the Internet. But who am I to worry about numbers? I am just an American father, not a statistician, television analyst, or a soldier’s father who is wondering whether his son or daughter will soon become another statistic.

I am a father of a 20-year-old son who thankfully never stopped to listen to recruiters at his high school. I am just a brother of a young boy who was erased in the middle of night after a car accident almost a quarter century ago, leaving my parents aching with grief, lost without their youngest child.

Now, I simply stare at an announcement on my computer screen from the Department of Defense so soon after the New Year: “Pfc. Ryan R. Berg, 19, of Sabine Pass, Texas, died Jan. 9 in Baqubah, Iraq, of wounds suffered when his unit came in contact with enemy forces using small arms fire.”

It’s just another war statistic, one of dozens listed each day. This is before the upcoming 15% escalation of our troops.

Five years ago, we felt like the victims who valued life and limb, still suffering from the horrific deaths of September 11th, not yet witnesses to the invasion of Iraq.

I wish I could tell the parents of Pfc. Berg that the sadness they feel today will dissipate in the next 25 years. I would like to say their son’s death was more than a fatality calculation. I just want to believe what the president said to the nation, that all the dead and wounded have sacrificed for a cause in Iraq which is “noble and necessary.”

 

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” Elie Wiesel

 

It’s Not Over Yet

January 26, 2007

 

So today, I will take my own medicine. I will close my eyes, take some deep breaths, and smile. I can’t control what Ford or the City of Detroit or Pfizer does. I can’t control the onslaught of bad news in the press. I can’t control the number of casualties in the Iraq War or whether it’s going to end this year or in five years.

 

The weather was so mild for so many weeks that I thought we might be spared the winter. But the last week made me realize that this is still Michigan and January in Michigan is usually cold, cloudy, with roads covered in dirty white blankets.

This morning, it is colder than usual, the night temperatures drifting below zero, the wind piercing the skin.

Today, it feels exceedingly bleak here in the Motor City.

Ford Motor announced a record $12.7 billion dollar loss for 2006, its worst annual performance in the company’s 103-year history. Last night, I watched Jim Cramer announce on his Mad Money show that the number one international stock is Toyota Motor, which is continuing to grow in sales and profits year after year and continues to hire more Americans than any other company.

He called GM and Ford two “health care cooperatives,” loaded with so many legacy costs that are simply strangling them.

I listened on my XM radio in my black Toyota Highlander, suddenly feeling unbearably guilty driving a vehicle in the Detroit area that has been driven over 90,000 miles since the summer of 2001 on a car that was built exclusively in Japan.

This was only two days after Pfizer announced the closing of its research facilities in Michigan and the elimination of 2410 jobs.

I couldn’t listen anymore and turned on the Top 20 Hit station which was playing Chris Daughtry’s rock anthem, “It’s Not Over.” I didn’t care if he was from American Idol. I still liked the song because it made me feel angry, alive, and triumphant.

Jim Cramer always says that when investing, don’t worry about morals. Focus on companies that can “make you money” like Altria (the new name for the huge cigarette conglomerate,) Halliburton, and Toyota, whether you like them or not. But I haven’t been able to stomach investing in companies that profit at the expense of cigarette smokers, the war in Iraq, or intensify the problems of Detroit’s car companies.

I just want to turn off all the negative noise of the television, radios, and newspapers and think of something positive. I just want to believe in the power of hope. What keeps us hoping that the Detroit Lions will break through their 50-year-William-Ford-owned drought of bad football? What keeps us hoping that Ford will come back to glory and bring Dearborn and Detroit back to the ‘50s and ‘60s when they were strong? Before the 1967 riots.

We must have a belief that things can change. Last Sunday, Peyton Manning led his Indianapolis Colts to a stunning come-from-behind victory against the team that had continuously beat them and won three Super Bowls, the New England Patriots led by ex-Michigan quarterback, Tom Brady.

It’s a new day today, even if it is bitter cold. I turn the radio to the Audio Visions station of gentle melodies. I turn off the thoughts of despair and close my eyes.

I told my mother yesterday that we have power over our own thoughts. As we sat in Providence Hospital, waiting for my father to return from his carotid artery and brain MRI and MRA examinations, I told her to stop worrying about what she can’t control. Fear is our scourge and our paralysis.

So today, I will take my own medicine. I will close my eyes, take some deep breaths, and smile. I can’t control what Ford or the City of Detroit or Pfizer does. I can’t control the onslaught of bad news in the press. I can’t control the number of casualties in the Iraq War or whether it’s going to end this year or in five years.

All I can control are my own thoughts at this very moment. I choose to breathe and be content in the satisfaction that today, I have good health. I am in a warm temperature-controlled 70-degree building.

Whatever is going on outside is beyond me.

I am happy.

 

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other a

 

 

Flight from the Bitter Cold

February 15, 2007

 

How do you leave the frigid temperatures of home and escape to a warm and beautiful vacation spot without feeling guilty?

 

When Judy and I returned from Arizona to the frozen tundra that lay underneath the Northwest flight below, we were relieved the trip was over, even if it was almost one hundred degrees colder than the place we left.

The air was bitter cold even when we walked from the plane to the terminal. Our wish was simple: after five days away, would our Town and Country start? We had parked on the third deck in the parking structure across from the terminal. I’d packed my winter coat, U of M ski hat, and suede gloves in my suitcase and put them on before we went outside.

It didn’t help. The wind-chill factor for the last few days was well below zero, school had been cancelled for almost all districts except Farmington on Monday, and almost all schools were cancelled on Tuesday. We knew on Monday because we woke at 3:30 a.m. Arizona time to check www.clickondetroit.com for continuous updates. By 7:20 a.m. Detroit time, another school was added to the list but not Farmington. We had already given the bad news to our kids who had to leave before then to make it to school on time.  

On Tuesday, we were supposed to leave Arizona at 2:30 p.m. but we went standby instead at 8:00, hoping no one wanted to leave the unending sun’s warmth and seventy-five degree temperatures. We found two seats across the aisle and we tried to relax on our way home. I read the New York Times, USA Today, Time, and parts of two books I had brought with me. I slept and daydreamed of the breathtaking scenery of the Sanctuary Resort at Camelback in Paradise Valley, Arizona.

When we were in Scottsdale, we had walked outside our room and just stood there, beholding the long mountain that looked like a large camel with a “praying monk” on its head, or so the legend said. The sun was never hidden by clouds. The breeze was gentle as were the passersby who seemed friendly and happy.

When we called home, we’d heard from our parents who said things were okay although it was incredibly cold, so cold that the news weathermen warned everyone to cover their ears and hands, to make sure skin was protected from the thirty-degree wind-chill outside. Knowing how cold it was at home, we felt guilty enjoying Arizona. We shopped, drove down smooth, wide roads, got pedicures and massages at the hotel, and visited a historic house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and his community of artists at Taliesin West.

When we learned Judy’s mother became ill and couldn’t drive Marlee, that our youngest daughter had to be moved to my parents and taken to school by my father who’s had his own health problems, we felt frustrated and too far away. We realized that even far away from home, we were still responsible and could not escape the problems of our families.

We cared more for their warmth and safety and protection and health than we did for our own.

A few days in Arizona provided Judy and I some needed rest and relaxation. But Judy warned me that she probably wouldn’t be able to come with me again on a trip without the kids, at least not for a long time. The guilt and worry of something unexpected happening was just too much to bear.

I could still reminisce about staring at the mountains and meditating under the sun, walking in a robe to the pool and lying under an umbrella to protect me from sunburn.

Back in the aching Michigan cold, I tried to propel myself back in time away from the dirty snow and wind to the rolling rocks under the sun. I pretended to pray with the monk of the mountains that our families and friends will be safe, healthy, and warm for the many winters still to come.

 

“Why do some people always see beautiful skies and grass and lovely flowers and incredible human beings, while others are hard-pressed to find anything or any place that is beautiful?” Leo Buscaglia

 

Punch-drunk

January 23, 2007

 

Michigan needs to be on Zoloft, the antidepressant drug make by Pfizer, which last year lost patent protection as sales sank 79%. We in this state need to increase our dosages of Norvasc, the blood pressure medicine, that will lose patent protection this year. We desperately need a prescription for Viagra to pump up our hearts and keep us from limping out of this area, or else we’ll be like Pfizer’s $800 million drug, Torcetrapib, which was due to replace the anti-cholesterol drug, Lipitor, but was scrapped last year amid safety questions.

 

Punch-drunk is the only word I know to describe this. Michigan is like a boxer “having cerebral concussion caused by repeated blows to the head and consequently exhibiting unsteadiness of gait, hand tremors, slow muscular movement, hesitant speech, and dulled mentality.”

Pfizer just announced the immediate closing of their 2-million-square-foot research facility in Ann Arbor and cut 2100 jobs there as well as 250 in Kalamazoo and 60 in Plymouth Township. This is the building I pass on the way to our friends, the Andersons, to Zingermans Deli, and to the University of Michigan.

It will end up a ghostly, empty building like the GM building that has been sitting vacant for ten years on the corner of Schoolcraft and Levan.

Michigan needs to be on Zoloft, the antidepressant drug make by Pfizer, which last year lost patent protection as sales sank 79%. We in this state need to increase our dosages of Norvasc, the blood pressure medicine, that will lose patent protection this year. We desperately need a prescription for Viagra to pump up our hearts and keep us from limping out of this area, or else we’ll be like Pfizer’s $800 million drug, Torcetrapib, which was due to replace the anti-cholesterol drug, Lipitor, but was scrapped last year amid safety questions.

It’s easy to be cynical and sarcastic when it’s not your job in jeopardy. But this hits home, wherever you sit. My company, IDN-Hardware Sales, Inc. celebrated last month with a large order of heavy duty locks for Pfizer’s Ann Arbor buildings, in an effort to protect its closely guarded research information. Yesterday, the buyer told us the purchase order is no longer valid. He had just heard the news and told us he was going home.

The order sits by itself in our warehouse, another piece of this economic fallout.

In 1966, the Beatles sang in the song Eleanor Rigby, “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?” We can now sing the Michigan dirge of this decade, “All the unemployed people, how will they all survive?”

We can be patient, waiting for the State of the Union speech by President George W. Bush tonight. He will probably mention along with the “way forward” in Iraq that we are in financially good shape and that the country is still strong. His secret recipe is for us to keep buying, even if it’s borrowing on high-interest credit, to keep the economy “booming.”

We keep watching companies prosper with cheap imported goods from China and more services from India while we wait in the Detroit/Ann Arbor area, lamenting that all we have to hang our economic hats on are Ford, GM, Daimler Chrysler, Pfizer, and Northwest Airlines.

So how did this happen? This supersized drug maker whose record profits propelled it to buy drug companies in Michigan and all over the world (remember Warner Lambert, Parke-Davis, Upjohn, and Pharmacia?) is now stuck in the mud of the market with no big blockbuster drugs on the horizon. You feel like punching something, the wall or new CEO Jeffrey Kindler who took over for “nice guy” Hank McKinnell, for arbitrarily shutting down the Michigan research facilities without warning. Could this be another example of bad management blaming its workers for its errors, just to raise the stock price?

Today, the stock price went down today another 2.8%. But I have to ask how can anger help anything. The ex-employees hopefully aren’t wallowing at home in self-pity and sadness, drinking liquor and taking drugs that Pfizer doesn’t sell. I hope they don’t feel as lost as the thousands of others who have lost jobs in the auto industry.

I have a dream: Bo Schembechler is back from the beyond, giving everyone in Michigan hell, telling us to hold our heads high. We need his gloriously scruffy voice, bellowing, “We don’t need this fat-dinosaur-New-York-drug-company anymore in our city and state.

“We’re Michigan, God-dammit, we’re Michigan!”

 

“Every memorable act in the history of the world is a triumph of enthusiasm. Nothing great was ever achieved without it because it gives any challenge or any occupation, no matter how frightening or how difficult, a new meaning. Without enthusiasm you are doomed to mediocrity but with it you can accomplish miracles.” Og Mandino

 

Never Again

March 1, 2007

 

Mr. Rusesabagina said the words, “never again,” are the world’s words of “fiction.” Genocide, he said, “has happened again and again and again;” and “it’s still happening now at this moment.”

 

The hotel manager from Rwanda who became a hero by managing to save 1268 people in the 1994 Rwandan massacre came to Farmington Hills on the final day of February, 2007. Paul Rusesabagina began his day by speaking to the students of North Farmington High School who had watched two nights earlier the movie, Hotel Rwanda, inspired by his life. He was the keynote speaker of their 2006-07 Interdisciplinary Study of “Humanity in Crisis: Genocide.”

The students were stuck in their classrooms, locked down, watching him on monitors. As Rick Jones, the principal, said on the loud speakers, “A threat from an outside organization on Mr. Rusesabagina’s life” forced police outside and inside the building. High security became his high priority.

Mr. Rusesabagina, author of the 2006 autobiography, An Ordinary Man, told the extraordinary story of his 100-day nightmare from April through July, 1994 when he and 1268 others managed to avoid the genocide that swept Rwanda, killing over 800,000 people, five murders every minute, 8000 every day.

On the last night of February in metro Detroit, he made his way past the policemen stationed at Adat Shalom Synagogue to tell his story to hundreds of adults and teenagers in the sanctuary. We listened intently, trying to understand his English as he explained that he never used weapons. He has written that “words are the most effective weapons of death…but they are also powerful tools of life.” He told how he watched the horror overcome his country, how “my job did not change in the genocide, even though I was thrust in a sea of fire. I only spoke the words that seemed normal and sane to me. I did what I believed to be ordinary things that an ordinary man would do. I said no to outrageous actions the way I thought that anybody would, and it still mystifies me that so many others could say yes.”

I was mystified also, hearing how the majority Hutus traveled the countryside hacking and slaughtering the minority Tutsis they called “cockroaches.” What’s the difference? Tutsis were perceived as taller with shorter noses. What did the international community do? It pulled out its tourists and UN workers and let it happen. The U.S. press was caught up in the ’94 mid-term election featuring the anti-Clinton backlash which led to a republican sweep of Congress. The whole world was all swept away with the politics of silence. We did nothing.

Mr. Rusesabagina said the words, “never again,” are the world’s words of “fiction.” Genocide, he said, “has happened again and again and again;” and “it’s still happening now at this moment.” Coincidently, the International Criminal Court announced the day before that their 20-month inquiry “found evidence of direct ties between the Sudanese government and the militias known as the janjaweed,” which are blamed for most of the carnage in Darfur, with the murders of over 450,000 Sudanese.

The subject of the night was unbearably grim but the passion of the students was anything but. Nineforpeace, a group of nine North students, passed around a petition urging sponsorship of legislation calling for “targeted divestment” of Sudan. And students and artists from North showed a remarkable book, entitled, The Commemorative Edition of the Northern Star: Recognizing and Honoring Victims of Genocide. This beautifully constructed and horrifying book (sold for a small fee of $5.00) details the Jewish Holocaust, the Armenian, Rwandan, and Darfur Genocides, and shows other genocides of the 21st Century. It also lists 50 ways we can help fight genocide right now, today. The high school students who have given so much love and passion to this study have created a phenomenal landmark book that gives hope that it’s still possible to make a difference.

Rusesabagina wrote that “Our time on earth is short and our chance to make a difference is tiny.” The audience rose to its feet three times for this amazing man who saved so many lives, who continues to speak the truth as he sees it without the fear of his death. He faced death so often in 1994 and has faced many death threats since, including one on December 20th and then again on February 28th at our neighborhood high school in suburban Detroit.

Fearlessly, Paul Rusesabagina’s mission is to educate humanity on the horrors of mass hatred, in the belief that we must all “sit at the table and just talk.” When he brought to the stage one of the Rwandan men he had saved, the man rose and said that to him, Rusesabagina was “God’s assistant.”

How can we not be inspired by such heroism and courage? We know that hatred and mass murder have continued to flourish in much of the world with not enough anger and little resistance. But hearing this inspiring man who showed such bravery has brought hope that even the ordinary among us has potential to defeat such hatred.

Today, I have the same hope as this “ordinary man” who ends his book, “Wherever the killing season should next begin and people should become strangers to their neighbors and themselves, my hope is that there will still be those ordinary men who say a quiet no and open the rooms upstairs.”

 

“I have not ceased being fearful, but I have ceased to let fear control me.” Erica Jong

 

The Waste

March 3, 2007

 

The secret is that we do support the troops but we have abandoned them by letting them go to the other side of world without questioning the men who sent them there. For what? That is the real secret.

 

After John McCain announced on the Late Show with David Letterman that he will be a candidate for president of the United States, he said, “Americans are very frustrated, and they have every right to be. We’ve wasted a lot of our most precious treasure, which is American lives.”

The next day, McCain apologized, “I should have used the word, sacrificed, as I have in the past.”

If you were on the new Fox hit show, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, how would you answer the following?

  1. How would you explain what happened to the 3152 U.S. service members who have perished in the Iraq War?
  1. Their lives were wasted.
  2. Their lives were sacrificed in the cause of war.
  3. They just died. They all simply died.
  4. Their physical bodies were either buried or burned to ashes.
  5. None of the above.
  6. All of the above.
  7. Who cares? This is all semantic B.S. anyway.

Would the adults whom have been quizzed by Jeff Foxworthy and barely got past 2nd grade questions answer the next question correctly?

  1. True or False: Did Senator McCain actually say that Donald Rumsfeld was “perhaps the worst Secretary of Defense ever?”

A 5th Grader has at least a 50/50 chance on this one. He might have read that Senator McCain is a master of contrition, an artist of apology. He says one thing to those of us who aren’t bothered by the free speech of our elected leaders. And then he turns from Hyde to Jekyll and says how sorry he is for such sorry comments.

What he’d probably like to say to all of us is: “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!”

And he would be right. As I turn the channel from one news network to the next and watch the processional of Anna Nicole’s black hearse shot from the helicopter above, I think of O.J. and our tabloid nation that turns away from stories of sorrow and plants its collective consciousness on American Idol, Anna, and The Secret. We are attracted to the good news of escape…to ABI, anything but Iraq.

Can we handle the truth that’s on the cover story of Newsweek, that we’re “Failing Our Wounded,” that “shattered in body and mind, too many veterans are facing poor care and red tape?” That the Army relieved Major General George Weightman from his post as the chief of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.? That the 16-to-1 ratio of wounded, crippled, and depressed soldiers vs. the dead and wasted soldiers in Iraq is the dirty, little secret of the Iraq War?

How about this one? Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley is back in charge of Walter Reed, the same man who had previously supervised its “poor treatment” and “substandard living conditions,” the leader who publicly blasted The Washington Post for its “one-sided reporting.” That should make us feel all sincerely satisfied that we’re finally taking care of our soldiers who have finally come home to stay.

Marine Pfc. Bufford K. Van Slyke won’t be coming home alive to stay in his home town of Bay City, Michigan. The 22-year-old marine who lived less than two hours north of me died on the last day of February while on combat operations in Anbar province.

Tell his parents that we are adding 7000 more soldiers to the surge. Tell them that their son was instrumental in protecting Shiites from Sunnis, or Sunnis from Shiites.

On the same day as Bufford’s death, Paul Rusesabagina came to Farmington Hills, Michigan and spoke to us, telling the tale that formed the basis of the movie, Hotel Rwanda. He spoke of the 100 nightmarish days in the spring of 1994 that he somehow survived with 1268 others, escaping the genocide perpetrated on the Tutsis of Rwanda from the majority militia manned by Hutus.

I could only think how Hutu-Tutsi is now Sunni-Shia but the difference is that we’re right there with them, our American soldiers sacrificed for us. They are the lambs sent by our fearless leaders who believe that “if we don’t fight them there, they’ll be coming for us here.”

If Bufford’s parents join the support-group organization, POMC, (Parents of Murdered Children,) will they be able to answer this question?

  1. Who killed your son?
  2. A Sunni soldier
  3. An IED in an armored car placed by someone
  4. A Shiite sponsored by Iran
  5. It’s all because of Saddam
  6. This is the way to Osama
  7. Bush and Cheney
  8. Congress and the rest of us who let this happen
  9. None of the above
  10. All of the above
  11. Who the hell cares? Our son is dead!

The secret is that we do support the troops but we have abandoned them by letting them go to the other side of world without questioning the men who sent them there. For what? That is the real secret.

And none of us know the answer.

 

Exodus

March 7, 2007

 

I’m in Michigan, the home of fewer and fewer jobs for less and less people, a place that hears nothing but bad news every week. It’s enough for Detroiters and Michiganders to wish for Moses to return and lead us out of this place, to somewhere, to anywhere but home.

 

In just a few weeks, Jews from across the world will celebrate Moses leading the Jewish people out of the land of Egypt with the hope of building a new life in a promised land.

Exodus came early to the leaders of Comerica, who announced that their bank, founded before the Civil War and known in the 1800’s as the Detroit Savings Bank and then the Detroit Bank, will be exiting the land of Michigan and moving its headquarters to Texas. There is more business, customers, and growth in Texas and the southern states of the U.S. That is its CEO’s message to us.

This coincides neatly with the other big news story in Detroit that the killer of Tara Lynn Grant, her husband, was caught after fleeing to the frozen landscape of Northern Michigan, after escaping his home minutes before deputies searched it and discovered Tara’s torso in a black garbage bag. Stephen Grant had gone on a one day exodus and ended up wandering bare-foot in waist-deep snow before being spotted by police helicopters with night-vision goggles, before confessing to murder.

Detroit won’t be able to capture Comerica like Grant and keep it sequestered, to question why it’s leaving. Chairman Ralph Babb said, “Moving our corporate headquarters to Dallas will give us greater proximity to all of our markets.” That statement is referring to new customers like the IDN corporate headquarters in Grapevine, a suburb of Dallas. President Mike Groover of IDN, Inc. had been talking to Comerica about changing his bank to the once-proud-to-be-headquartered-in-Detroit banking institution. It should be very convenient now to do business with the now-headquartered-in-Dallas institution.  

It’s discouraging to customers in the Detroit area who felt good dealing with a large company still headquartered in Detroit, entrenched in this area for over 157 years. When I had lunch with our company’s Comerica account representative only a few weeks earlier, I told her that we had been a loyal Comerica account since First of America became National City. She said that Comerica was the last big bank left in Detroit and she didn’t anticipate that changing. Now, she says that it’s just a minor change and all of their Michigan employees are still in place to service Michigan accounts.  

This is the trend of this area. National Bank of Detroit became Bank One which became J.P.Morgan Chase. Arbor Drugs became CVS. Chrysler became Daimler. Kmart became Sears Holdings. And the beat goes on.  

Comerica owns the rights for the Detroit Tigers baseball stadium name for another 29 years. Wouldn’t it be nice if Detroit could ship Comerica Park to the spot that Enron Field once occupied? Or if it could change the park’s name back to Tiger Stadium. How does Tiger Park sound? Anything other than the name of a company ready to flee its homeland and loyal customers for the now-hot oil market in Texas.

Let the Comerica board of directors go! Let them flee the Great Lakes for the hot and very humid land of Bush and the Dallas Cowboys.

Comerica follows Pfizer. Where’s Chrysler going next? Companies are fleeing Michigan like citizens fleeing Iraq. It’s as if the Motor City auto companies and everyone supplying them have small pox or some deadly, contagious disease. But it’s not disease; it’s the glacier of the global marketplace that has smashed against our area’s ship and seems to be capsizing us while we watch ourselves drown.

We are drowning in life-giving water, however, with the Great Lakes all around us and 11,000 lakes within our state’s boundaries: water that is needed desperately by Vegas, Arizona, California, and the entire Mideast. So why don’t we just tell the booming towns in Texas, California, and Arizona that when they need water, we’ll sell it to them and charge them what they charge us for oil? Can’t we use our area’s greatest natural resource as a great incentive to come and live and work in Michigan?

I guess I’m dreaming. At least I’m not dreaming of God smiting the land of Texas with sandstorms and hurricanes. I’m not Joseph, but all I envision is God sending another economic plague to Michigan.

My wife would like to leave Michigan for the warm temperatures of Arizona in a few years after the kids have left home. But how can I leave my home along with everyone else? Young people are leaving. Young college students like my son won’t be coming home again. He has told me, what good reason does he have to come back here? And all I can think of saying is, “There’s no place like home.”

I can still dream of an Oz of beautiful cottages on lakes, the wonder of sand dunes, of fleeing in my Cadillac convertible up north, free to fly away on American wheels on the sacred highway that was built in the 50s when our country still felt young and alive and important. But when I realize that I’m driving my Toyota SUV out of the suburbs away from the Detroit that our company left 29 years ago, on a potholed highway that is filled with orange cones, I know I’m not in Kansas anymore.

I’m in Michigan, the home of fewer and fewer jobs for less and less people, a place that hears nothing but bad news every week. It’s enough for Detroiters and Michiganders to wish for Moses to return and lead us out of this place, to somewhere, to anywhere but home. But I can’t. My company is here. My employees work here. My kids live here, at least for now.

I’m a lifer, born in Detroit, who hopes to die many years from now in this same Detroit area. But I pray that at the end of my life, I won’t be filled with regret that I didn’t run away to Texas or Arizona, that I didn’t join the mass exodus out of this place. I hope I won’t wonder at the end of my days why I didn’t flee from my dear, old Michigan home.

 

“Obstacles cannot crush me. Every obstacle yields to stern resolve. He who is fixed to a star does not change his mind.” Leonardo Da Vinci

 

The Shiva Call

March 10, 2007

 

As I joined in Kaddish at the end of prayers, I thought of the mitzvah of Shiva, how Jews gather to help other Jews weather the pain of loss. I remembered how Milt Goldman went to my father’s house in 1982 to help another Goldman family heal after the loss of their son and brother.

 

A Shiva call is always unpleasant. But when I got a phone call that the 45-year-old sister of the wife of my first cousin had suddenly died, it became an obligation to go to the funeral or shiva or both. I had little choice.

I understand the duty and the mitzvah that must be done. But when Judy and I walked into the condo that is now Milt Goldman’s, it was even sadder than the typical Shiva.

At ten minutes to 7:00, the first person I saw, ready for the afternoon and evening prayers was Howie, the 50-year-old son of Milt, who just like me, lived on Rensellor in Livonia during his childhood and teenage years. Howie, Milt, and their Goldman family lived one block south of my Goldman family.

My most memorable memory of Howie was in our 11th Grade Government class at Clarenceville High School, taught by Mrs. Holland. During conferences, my parents received troublesome news that I needed extreme help and might even fail the class. They were upset that their son, with a 3.9 grade point average, was having such a hard time.

When Holland showed them the status card with the name, Howard, on top, my parents were thankful and relieved. Mrs. Holland, however, was so embarrassed that she gave me perfect scores on every test from then on. The next week, when a friend sitting next to me copied answer-by-answer my multiple-choice-test on Watergate and received a C compared to my A, I learned how it felt to be the beneficiary of corruption in government.

Seeing Howie, however, at his sister’s Shiva brought little levity. His sister had just died two years after gastric bypass surgery had eliminated over a hundred pounds, only nine months after her first marriage. Her sister, Michelle, said that her sister was the happiest she’d ever been. She had just a few weeks earlier followed-up after her first surgery by having some more excess flab and fat removed.

The Goldman family was stunned to find their daughter and sister dead in the bathroom. Her heart had simply stopped beating.

I sat in the back row of the small group who gathered, as it became standing-room-only in a crowded living room. When I was introduced to the husband sitting next to me, I inarticulately stammered that I was deeply sorry. The widower was mostly quiet during the half-hour service, dazed, silently listening to Hebrew prayers.

Milt the father said a few words and apologized when the words got stuck in his throat. He said he had been to a Shiva call recently without a minyan and told how honored he felt because so many friends joined him in his grief. He mentioned that he would never leave his little congregation on Seven Mile Road in Livonia, the same shul where I learned Hebrew and Torah in the late sixties.

As I joined in Kaddish at the end of prayers, I thought of the mitzvah of Shiva, how Jews gather to help other Jews weather the pain of loss. I remembered how Milt Goldman went to my father’s house in 1982 to help another Goldman family heal after the loss of their son and brother. I could hardly remember anything from that week except the drama of the missing purse at Kenny’s Shiva, how almost everyone, including my mother, suspected my father’s first cousin and best friend from his childhood who everyone called “Little Sid.”

I also remembered that the other Milt’s daughter, Michelle, met my first cousin, Don, at Kenny’s Shiva and married him the next year. Since then, Don and Michelle had two children, Jamie in college who was the same age as Kyle, and Shawn in high school who shares the same age as Ilana. Little Sid is now dead, buried only a few rows behind my brother.

Today, Michelle understands the finality of grief and what it’s like to ache from the loss of her youngest sibling. We mourn together, partners in Shiva, our fathers Milt Goldman and Milt Goldman, both gray-haired, each looking frailer, yet still blessedly alive.

 

“As long as there is life, there is hope.” Johanon. Talmud J: Berakot, 9.1

 

Little Mitzvahs

March 9, 2007

 

As I worked in my office, my job seemed trivial. I thought how easy it is to become motivated and moved by heroes but when we return to our homes and work, we go back to the uninspiring habits of our lives. I felt frustrated, wondering if I could look back on my own life and find any inspiration, even heroism. I then grudgingly answered my own question.

 

“We can’t all be heroes, because somebody has to sit on the curb and applaud when they go by.” When Dr. Rick Hodes visited Adat Shalom Synagogue in November, I thought of the Will Rogers quote. Listening to the Jewish American doctor who had visited Africa over two decades before and stayed there to help was a remarkable lesson in sacrifice, dedication, and humility. Dr. Hodes had overseen medical operations for humanitarian relief efforts in Sudan, Rwanda, and Zaire, had treated disease in Ethiopia, and had saved children with rare skeletal deformities from almost certain death.

As we viewed photos and listened to stories from this dedicated Orthodox Jew who had given his life to heal the sick that needed it most because “he was there” and “who else would do it,” I felt overwhelmed and overcome with admiration. Yet, all the audience and I could do was applaud as loud as we could.

The same feelings swept over me as I listened to Paul Rusesabagina speak at Adat Shalom on the last night of February as part of the year-long project on genocide for North Farmington High School. After being mesmerized two nights earlier by the powerful movie, Hotel Rwanda, based on 100 days of Paul’s life in 1994, we listened to him speak of his real-life nightmare when he sheltered over 1260 Tutsis and moderate Hutus from being slaughtered by the militia who eventually killed almost a million Rwandans. We could barely breathe when listening to him speak of seeing so much anguish and escaping slaughter with his wife, children, and hundreds of refugees who were kept alive mainly because of the sheer strength of his will and heart.

Rusesabagina wrote in his autobiography, An Ordinary Man, that “genocide remains the most pressing human rights question of the twenty-first century.” He spoke of “normal” Rwandans becoming monsters within days and as in the Holocaust, other nations looked away. He said, “All genocides rely heavily on the power of group thinking to embolden the everyday killers.” He noticed “how ordinary citizens were bullied and cajoled into doing things they would never have dreamed possible without the reinforcing eyes of the group upon then. And in this way murder becomes not just possible but routine.”

We have to hope that Paul’s words may help humanity prevent the next horrific moment of madness. We have to be thankful that in less than three months, the Detroit area community was fortunate to witness and listen to two extraordinary people who had sacrificed their own lives so that others could live. Imagine if Schweitzer, Sugihara, or Wallenberg were still alive to speak to us. We had an opportunity to listen to and speak with two living legends who have truly lived tikkun olam.

When I went back home, I turned on the TV, made school lunches for my kids, conversed with my wife, Judy, on the success of the night that she had helped plan. The night with Rusesagabina was powerful and memorable. But when I woke the next morning for breakfast, exercise, and went to work, I felt uneasy, a little worthless.

As I worked in my office, my job seemed trivial. I thought how easy it is to become motivated and moved by heroes but when we return to our homes and work, we go back to the uninspiring habits of our lives. I felt frustrated, wondering if I could look back on my own life and find any inspiration, even heroism. I then grudgingly answered my own question.

I began to remember moments of small mitzvahs, helping my parents by driving them to the hospital, being kind and smiling to a person waiting on me, sharing laughter with my daughters, sending an anniversary card to an employee, giving a donation to JARC in the middle of a workday. It wasn’t much, but we can’t all be great like Hodes or Rusesabagina. Instead, we need to think of each moment as a chance to do a little mitzvah, try to repair the world, to make something a little bit better.

We can feel okay that we’re not surgeons, rabbis, or relief workers, but when the chance comes to do something good, we must try to act heroically.

So when I found out that an ex-employee’s baby boy has terminal cancer, my fellow co-workers and I stopped working to brainstorm how to raise money for two young parents and their dying child. And when I received an email from the AmeriCares Fund for Darfur, I didn’t delete it as I usually do. I clicked on it and gave a donation for “live-saving medicines and supplies to the people of Darfur.”

I can only pray that this gift of money becomes food, clothing, or shelter, that it could be what one child desperately needs to survive. I must pray that this one little mitzvah will spread and multiply to become infinitely more.

 

“Give of yourself…you can always give something, even if it is only kindness…No one has ever become poor from giving.” Anne Frank, “The Diary of a Young Girl

 

Men, Violence, and Madness

March 12, 2007

 

What gives us men so much excitement from seeing bombs exploding, fires lit, and bodies strewn all over?

 

‘”300” racks up record body count at box office,” was the story caption this morning on my Yahoo news on my computer, as the movie racked up $70,000,000 in first-weekend sales. The first sentence read, “Heads rolled at the weekend box office in North America as the blood-soaked ancient epic “300” slaughtered its foes in spectacular fashion.”

There was no author listed at the end of the story but I would bet $7000 that it’s a man.

Coincidently, I had promised my male friend that I would call him back today about that same movie. My Jewish attorney friend called last night to ask if I wanted to join him and some other “guys” for dinner and then to see “300” at the Imax “if there are any tickets left.” I had a crown prep at the dentist, scheduled at 6:00p.m., but I still had to wonder if I wanted to drive 30 minutes after being shot with Novocain to see what Terry Lawson, the Detroit Free Press movie critic, called the “first great movie of 2007.”

I still hadn’t made up my mind this morning when my wife called me to say our daughter’s high school was evacuated after a phoned-in bomb threat. This was the second bomb threat within two weeks, following the one called in when Paul Rusesabagina, visited the school. The man who was the inspiration behind the movie, Hotel Rwanda, told us how he and 1268 other Rwandans had escaped the 1994 genocide. Paul said that he never owned weapons and believed in the power of words, not violence.

The sex of today’s bomb caller wasn’t revealed but I would bet it’s a 99% chance it’s a man. Probably the same type of guy who gets thrills from seeing the high volume of dead bodies sliced, shot, and bloodied in movies like “300.”

I am not immune to such thrills. It’s the thrill of fear in a dark theatre without real terror, sensing the scare but knowing everything will be just fine. It’s the intense excitement, the adrenaline rush. What gives us men so much excitement from seeing bombs exploding, fires lit, and bodies strewn all over? Women might ask, isn’t it enough to get excited when the 64-team brackets are passed out for the NCAA “March Madness” basketball tournament?

It’s a good point. This morning, men from all over American offices and warehouses are filling out their picks for the brackets and placing their bets on who will get into the Final Four. It’s an All-American male hobby.

On the other side of the globe, American men aren’t worried about the picks for the Final Four. Men and women, aged 18 through 55, are seeing more than they could have ever imagined when they signed up for the Army and National Guard. Instead, they might have imagined the latest video games on Play Station 2 or the latest violent movie like Apocalypto or The Matrix in which so many bloody corpses are strewn across the screen. But when they see that the distant violence they loved in movies and games are nothing like reality, what can they do?

They probably never imagined that they’d be caught in the crossfire of exploding bombs lit by Sunnis and Shiites in an endless war of men stuck in a centuries-old battle of distrust and hatred. Or that they’d be stuck in a quagmire that would send thousands of them home to hospital rooms, their legs turned to bloody stumps, their parents distraught.

No American imagined these men and women would be stuck in a bureaucratic bind of never-ending paperwork that would eventually find its way into the news as the disgrace of Walter Reed and other VA hospitals unable to deal with the heavy onslaught of returning cripples.

George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, when they envisioned the attack on Iraq, probably never imagined that war would become an endless string of bombs and headlines. They hoped the Arab world would know that Americans would not be again attacked without real retribution. They were just men doing what men do, being tough, strong, no-nonsense “deciders”. They decided to join other bomb-throwers in the world, but then, they had more sophisticated equipment.

Now, we watch our news and bloody but imaginary movies. Today, our kids aren’t imagining that they see bomb-sniffing dogs outside their classroom doors, when they’re moved, over 800 of them, into a church next door. I’d bet they were buzzed, excited, certainly not bored as they might be in their daily classes. Now, they can tell their families and friends a hell of a story, the kind of story that Richard Jeni’s girlfriend told the police yesterday when she found him dead with a gunshot bullet in his face. She said it was his gun and it was probably suicide. This news, emailed from my son, shocked me even more than the bomb threat.

When Kyle turned 18, we wanted to celebrate his graduation from North Farmington as well as his 18th birthday. But instead of having a graduation party, it was my wife and my idea to get his closest friends together with our family and celebrate together, to laugh and enjoy each other’s company. So when I heard that the hilarious comic, Richard Jeni, was performing at Meadowbrook Theatre, I told Judy that we should buy tickets, so we decided to surprise him when he arrived. Kyle thought that only Judy and I, his sisters, his girlfriend from North and he would be there. Instead, his closest friends as well as my parents, and my sister, Leslie, husband Bruce, and their daughter Karenna, came to surprise him.

I told them all that Richard Jeni was a “family-friendly” comic whom I had seen on TV and that his act was hilarious and appropriate for our nine-year-old daughter, Marlee, and eight-year-old Karenna.

What did I know? All I can remember now is the embarrassment of my sister, wife, and me as we wanted to cover our daughters’ ears as Richard said the f-word and joked about masturbation, sex, and other “adult” topics. Much of the night was hilarious and decent for kids, as I found out when I watched the same show that he called, “A Big, Steaming Pile of Me,” on HBO a few months ago. But some of the night was disturbing and revealing. Jeni was outing himself as a “big, steaming pile” of funny filth.

My son and his friends laughed as I giggled nervously while my wife and kids barely smiled. I knew then I had really screwed up and apologized at the end of the evening. I know now from a tiny headline that this funny man, one year younger than me, is dead from his own gun. And I know the big story still is the screwed-up Stephen Grant in his wheelchair in prison garb, this apparently non-violent man who suddenly strangled and chopped up his intelligent, smiling, and loved-by-everyone wife.

And today, I know the more sudden, sad news from my wife is her best friend, in the midst of a terrible divorce from a cheating husband, hearing from her doctor that the cancer that jolted her at age 35 has now returned, just after her 48th birthday.

If I had a handy IED, I just might use it.

I would like to blow up this pain and violence. I would wish that American citizens could see the coffins that fly into their country at night, banned from news cameras, hidden from the world. But I know that even the most shocking images of war are distant and dark like violent movies. Even if we flash the most powerful fluorescent flashlights on these silent gifts from our testosterone-laden leaders and timid Congress and the rest of us do-nothing-but-gripe-about-the-price-of-gas constituents, who would notice? Would anything change?

Today, I don’t know the answers but I do know I won’t let myself be swept away by anger. I won’t let myself be torn up today by sadness and violence.

I can’t do much about wars and bombs but I know I must not see “300” tonight. I will simply call my friend to let him know, thanks. I must stay home with my children and wife tonight. I need to try to soothe her sadness, to help her cope with her dear friend who must again face the demons of cancer.

I need to know what’s happening at my daughter’s school. So when I click on “Click On Detroit,” I’m relieved that North Farmington High students have been sent back from church to school. The dogs have found no bombs and my fear and anger slowly fades to a calm thanks.

Tonight, I just want to see my daughters safe at home, returning at last from a day of bombs, bloody movies, a war that won’t end…the March madness of men and violence.

 

“It is in the face of hopelessness more than any other time that we unite and rally around what is really important.” Miles Levin, Carepages.com

 

Happy Birthday, Iraq War

March 19, 2007

 

The Iraq War is four years old today and the stock market is rising nicely. President George W. Bush just spoke on this big milestone and asked for more patience. He said success is possible but “will take months, not days or weeks.”

He’s the eternal optimist. As he says we must support our troops, I turn to the Internet for the up-to-date score of this “support” of war and “his troops.”

There have been 3,478 coalition deaths — 3,220 Americans, two Australians, 134 Britons, 13 Bulgarians, six Danes, two Dutch, two Estonians, one Fijian, one Hungarian, 32 Italians, one Kazakh, three Latvian, 19 Poles, two Romanians, five Salvadoran, four Slovaks, 11 Spaniards, two Thai and 18 Ukrainians — in the war in Iraq as of March 19, 2007, according to a CNN count.  At least 24,042 U.S. troops have been wounded in action, according to the Pentagon.

Many Americans beside soldiers and their families have suffered greatly as well. As President Bush said to Jim Lehrer in January in reference to a question about American sacrifice, he answered, “Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night.”

Of course, if Americans watch American Idol and the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament, they won’t have to suffer.

For the rest of us, we can suffer in silence and know that for the next few months or years, we must wait for “success.”

God help us and God help every soldier, dead, crippled, or home, alive, in one piece.

 

“Death is not the greatest lost in life. The greatest loss is what dies within us while we live.” Norman Cousins

The Cancer Jihad

March 28, 2007

 

Forget terrorism. The fear of terrorism is locked in the worry of 9/11’s return and the barrage of news we read each day. Here’s the real unheard headline: Cancer is the true terrorist; it’s here in our backyards, the cities and suburbs of America. A total of 1,444,920 new cancer cases and 559,650 deaths for cancer are projected to occur in the United States in 2007 (American Cancer Society, Cancer Statistics, 2007).

 

When an ex-employee called to say she wanted to stop by our office with her toddler, I was a little nervous. I hadn’t seen or talked to her in a long time, certainly not since the news we heard just a month earlier.

Diana held her boy and talked to her old friends in our company. Her son, Noah, wanted to be released so he could walk to the stationary bike in the lunch room which he was eyeing. He reminded me of my son 18 years ago when Kyle was a feisty, mischievous 2 ½-year-old, always wanting to experiment with something that caught his fancy.

The difference was that Diana’s child had a polka-dotted mask over his mouth and a shaved head. When Noah started limping last month and was taken to the doctor to examine his knee, the knee checked out just fine. But after an MRI at Children’s Hospital, the doctors shut the office door and told Diana and Scott, the young married couple, that a large tumor that was attached to their son’s femur had invaded his pelvic and abdomen area and moved into his bone marrow.

Three days earlier, Noah was a happy go-lucky, seemingly healthy toddler. Now, he had the Big C, stage IV, outlook: 6 months up to 5 years left of his life.

We listened and joked with the boy, made faces at him and let him try out sample locks and see if he could pull out the key. Even with a mask over his mouth, Noah could still giggle and whine. He wanted to go back downstairs to see Mike, the inside salesman.

This happened the same day that I got an email from my wife’s best friend, Pam, announcing what I already knew. She wrote, “I unfortunately received some disheartening medical news. I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Some of you know that this is the second time I’ve heard those words in my life. Some of you don’t. The good news is that they’ve caught this early, thanks to a routine mammogram….I can’t describe what I’m feeling except overwhelmed, sad, angry, optimistic, numb and strangely…thankful. All of it, I’ve felt all of it.”

Forget terrorism. The fear of terrorism is locked in the worry of 9/11’s return and the barrage of news we read each day. Here’s the real unheard headline: Cancer is the true terrorist; it’s here in our backyards, the cities and suburbs of America. A total of 1,444,920 new cancer cases and 559,650 deaths for cancer are projected to occur in the United States in 2007 (American Cancer Society, Cancer Statistics, 2007). A total of 553,888 cancer deaths was recorded in the United States in 2004, the most recent year for which actual data is available.

Who hasn’t known a friend or family member struck by a deadly tumor? Trying to find truth in statistics is overwhelming, but can anyone answer how many more young people are struck with cancer today compared to 40 years ago? Cigarettes used to be the face of cancer, but many young people who’ve never lit a cigarette are victims now.

Today, we face carcinogens everywhere, in our homes, workplaces, water, and foods. When I search the Internet for deadly chemicals, the list is overwhelming. They’re in our detergents, dryer sheets, carpets and floors; there’s mercury in our fillings and the salmon we eat, preservatives on our fruits, pesticides in our lawns. Little kids and pregnant women are no match for the thousands of man-made chemicals introduced in the last few decades, all dedicated to our all-American desire for speed and convenience.

A quick quiz: Where would you find these proven agents that are “carcinogenic to humans?”

  1. Paradichlorobenzene
  2. Quaternium 15
  3. Trisodium nitrilotriacetate
  4. Perchloroethylene
  5. Vinyl chloride

Let’s match the toxic substance to where we can find it in our homes or workplaces:

  1. Baby shampoo and soap bars
  2. The most popular laundry detergents
  3. Medical supplies, cables, piping, and household equipment
  4. Toilet bowl cleaners
  5. Carpet cleaners and spot removers

When you begin to look into the chemical playground that our world has become, it starts to make the movies, A Civil Action, or Erin Brockovich, seem like child’s play. We are living with so many man-made chemicals in everything that we are simply too busy and too naïve to notice. We depend on our government and our EPA to protect us but are they worth the trust we put in them? We must depend on the large conglomerates that give congressmen money to let them continue with their current chemicals.

So it’s no surprise when a mother finds her child with a gigantic tumor that has spread from his abdomen to his liver and bones, a tumor that was probably there since birth. Where does it come from, genetics? How about toxic chemicals too powerful for a mother’s womb and her fetus inside?

The big news this week is that John Edwards, the former senator and Vice Presidential candidate from 2004, is still running for president, even though his wife’s breast cancer has returned. Elizabeth now has Stage IV metastatic breast cancer which has spread beyond her breast and lymph nodes into her ribs. They say it is treatable but not curable; so now we wonder how long she has to live.

We feel helpless in the midst of the horrible news of cancer, but that doesn’t stop us from doing something to help. When our company found out that baby Noah had a lethal tumor, her friend, Melissa, asked what we could do to help. We knew that the costs of cancer treatment, even with good insurance, can be unstoppable, so Melissa with our help set up a comedy-for-a-cause event to raise money for Noah. And at our 18th Annual IDN Trade Show, our marketing department set up a raffle and we donated clearance merchandise to our customer’s associations and asked them to help. When they heard about Diana’s boy, they decided to give all of the money raised to Noah and his family.  

The day after the show, Diana took her son to Children’s Hospital for another round of chemo but the hospital didn’t have a bed available.  So she brought him to our workplace and we walked around our building. Noah had no mask and displayed the curious energy of a “normal” 30-month-old boy. He was given a Strattec mini-truck and car to play with and was fascinated by the magnetic paper clip holder of our marketing manager. He was just having fun like any other little boy.

We had given them raffle money at the show and were able to hand over another $2000 with hundreds more to come in the week. Diana was incredibly grateful and surprised by our donations.  She said if she never needed the money for Noah’s fund , she’d give it to the hospital and their staff which had been so kind and helpful to her little kid.

I told her it was the least we could do to help and that our prayers for his recovery are hopefully more powerful than any money we could donate. Her whole hope, she said, was that the longer Noah lives, the greater the chance that something better comes along. She has to dream that there’s a cure or treatment coming soon.

Instead of the rest of us living in our daydream lives, we must take a more active role in watching our immediate environment, to learn what is most toxic and available alternatives. We have to do something but sit and wait in this Russian-roulette-life-game for some cancer to strike us.

So here are the answers to the quiz: 1-D, 2,A, 3-B, 4-E, 5-C.

And here is what I’ve done to start: no more dryer sheets, no detergent with dyes and fragrances. I’m trying out natural cleaners at Trader Joes and Whole Foods and will purchase the new Greening-the-Cleaning products from Imus Ranch Foods, in which all profits go to the Imus Cattle Ranch for Kids with Cancer.

We can’t live in armored vehicles but we must try to prevent the next IEDs from exploding in front of us. We must continue to fight and survive this cancer jihad, the true terrorist of our day.

 

“Whoever destroys a single life is as guilty as though he destroyed the entire world; and whoever rescues a single life earns as much merit as though he had rescued an entire world.” The Talmud, Mishna. Sanhedrin, 37A

Freedom of Speech and Weapons

April 20, 2007

 

What’s worse, a shock-jock celebrity making a crude and cruel remark on television and radio, or selling a Glock 9mm with 15 round magazine capacity and Walther .22–caliber handgun with 10 round magazine capacity to a quiet 23-year old boy with a credit card?

 

The major media outlets like to fixate on one big story at a time. First, it’s a radio personality’s three controversial words, then, a violent student acting like a character from the new movie, Grindhouse, shooting his fellow Virginia Tech students, 32 of them to death, before committing suicide.

The horrific ballet of collegiate devastation dwarfs the words of Don Imus. It’s another moment of gratuitous violence, like the latest movies advertised on TV found at the newest cinemas, meant to shock and awe its young audiences with even more graphic displays of bloody killing.

In the latest episode of the murder-filled Sopranos, Tony Soprano’s nephew, Christopher, fulfills his lifelong dream, producing and writing a movie, the mob/slasher movie, Cleaver, inspired by Saw. How easy is it to watch these blood-stained scenes from Cleaver or the new movie, The Reaping, or on any of the newest ultra-violent video games on Xbox or Playstation III and feel absolutely nothing? We can watch with a seen-it-all-before blank stare.

What’s worse, a shock-jock celebrity making a crude and cruel remark on television and radio, or selling a Glock 9mm with 15 round magazine capacity and Walther .22–caliber handgun with 10 round magazine capacity to a quiet 23-year old boy with a credit card?

Imus has a history of saying what he wants on the air, ticking off thousands of listeners, thrilling others who fantasize they could spout words of anger, disgust, humor, and cruelty, whenever the mood strikes. He has a history with lots of cruel, callous remarks, calling our last president a “lying weasel” and the current one a “war criminal.” Imus has said disturbing things about Jews, the obese, celebrities, and politicians. His words often made me cringe with fury, but no one was immune from his tirades.

His staff tarnished and scolded him often and he seemed to delight in these criticisms as well as the ones he mouthed. But just as often, his words and the words of his guests seemed well chosen, even eloquent at times. Who else would blow the whistle on war planners and world polluters and those who downplayed autism and corruption? No one else on radio or television could be so blunt and honest, without an obvious political agenda.

On the morning of April 4th, Imus joked with co-host Bernard McGuirk about the Rutgers girl’s basketball team, both commenting on their “nappy” hair and then Imus added a word used throughout much of the hip-hop culture, the short staccato version of whore. After days of escalating angry responses, Imus talked with Al Sharpton and apologized to the Rutgers players and coaches. But that didn’t stop the unending news reports and commentaries about the controversial talk-show host. He was finally fired by the employers who previously seemed fine with his tirades and ratings and the subsequent ads that brought pretty nice revenue. After only a week, GE and CBS felt that the sting of losing sponsors and having weakening reputations were just too much to take.

24-hour news coverage of the “Campus Massacre” is another story. The constant coverage of the man who planned to kill as many Virginia Tech students as he could is the only national story now, dwarfing Iraq, Iran, and everything else.  Seeing every possible image of Cho Seung-Hui, his recent past, his photos, letter to NBC, videos with shots of himself, his screenplays, quotes from his teachers, memories of how he was laughed at in high school, is now all news, all business, bringing loads of viewers and listeners.

Let us all wallow in the newest celebrity, the newly ordained “Hannibal Lecter” of the X generation.

I’d like to hear what Imus would say about all of this. I’m starting to miss the controversy of his free speech, which was primed to aggravate us, anger us, and stun us out of our day-to-day stupor. After watching another clip of Cho enraged or laughing, I wish I could hear once more the often-played and blaring scream, “SHUT-UPPP!” that was played as a sound bite so often on the Imus show.

For Don’s final week, how many talking heads and columnists enjoyed saying and writing the three infuriating words, “nappy-headed hos”? These words had been repeated on the Internet, newspapers, magazines, television, and radio so often, even if the last word wasn’t a real word, even if those words were just ignorant and callous. Thankfully, the Rutgers girls accepted Don’s apology and went on with their lives.  

They are lucky they only faced three stupid words, not the blitzkrieg of gunshots from a deranged student on another campus. Cho enjoyed the NRA-inspired, 2nd Amendment right to bear arms and own weapons of “mass destruction.” He enjoyed the freedom to be an American madman, free to buy weapons, free to plan an attack, free to become famous.

Imus lost his freedom of speech in the public arena of television and radio. Now, his show is superceded by hours and hours of madness and grief on MSNBC. We can learn how easy it is to be a deranged murdering celebrity. We get to witness the real-life movie of another story of revenge, like the 2003 South Korean movie, Oldboy, or Taxi Driver or hundreds of other movies and TV shows, like Tony and Christopher lashing out at their enemies on The Sopranos. Cho was acting out his own revenge/horror B-movie flick, with Seung-Hui as the hero, a sequel to Schwarzenegger’s Terminator.

Imus now gets to watch it on TV while he and his wife welcome the new kids with cancer to the Imus Ranch. After all his years on radio and TV, his mouth is finally silenced.

In his place, we get the celebrated images of violence and the bitter aftermath of the grief of so many parents, siblings, and friends. It’s the new American way: free speech terminated and replaced by the nobody who becomes a vengeful martyr, glorified and sanctified by weapons.

 

Weight and Loss (A Toast to Mom)

May 2, 2007

 

Soon it is Mother’s Day, the one day that we officially celebrate our mothers. But before that, in my mind, I will toast my mother and other mothers in my life who support and protect the lives of their children. I have been fortunate to share some of the best mothers in the world, including my wife, mother-in-law, and my sister. I am honored to salute them all.

 

When the Weight Watchers advisor at our meeting discussed the topic, few of the six seated members had much to say. She asked if we had role models and mentors and if so, how did they contribute to our lives? We all sat still, silent, until one lady came forth and praised her husband. She said he was her role model because he left her alone and trusted her decisions.

I kept thinking to myself: who was my role model? My mind was a blur of thoughts and items on my to-do list. I just stayed tongue-tied and quiet.

After I left the meeting, I was disappointed with myself for forgetting to mention someone so close to me that I rarely think about her. My mind felt that ah-hah moment a few minutes too late. But it was finally clear to me that my role model and inspiration is my mother.

My mom has been going to Weight Watchers meetings for the last two and a half years and finally reached her lifetime goal weight just a few months ago. She told me she felt somewhat embarrassed at her last meeting when she told the other members that she was trying to gain weight now.

My mom has struggled with weight for the last two decades. Like her mom and dad, me and so many others, she has struggled to keep excess weight off. And in the last few months, she has attributed her weight loss more to her nerves, her fear for my father’s health as he suffers with lymphoma and failing kidneys.  

I admire her tenacity, her perseverance to stay with Weight Watchers and to reach her goal. But I admire her much more because she has survived the most difficult test of a parent, the test of losing a child.

It’s hard to imagine what she had to live through, nearly losing her husband in a car accident when she was 46, on July 20th, 1982.  On the way home from a Detroit Tigers baseball game on, my father’s car was hit on the passenger’s side, less than a mile from home. Just after midnight at Botsford Hospital, their 13-year-old son, my brother Kenny, was pronounced dead.

My dad survived as did my mom and they persevered through the grieving years. Though it took a great toll on them, they remained good parents to my sister and me and stayed loving soul mates to each other.

My mother built a network of friends and in the next decade, she began to play the piano as she had when she was young. Eventually, she became a certified piano teacher, inspiring young boys and girls, most of them thirteen and younger. When I see her teaching a young boy the same age as Kenny before he died, I struggle to keep my eyes dry.

In the last quarter century since the accident, my mother found help from my father and her two sisters. She was also supported by her good friends as well as my sister and me. We all helped each other survive and live, even in the presence of sadness and loss.

My mom has shown more strength and resilience than I could have imagined on the night of the accident, when we both stayed at her sister’s house, just trying to survive the night. We talked and talked and took sleeping pills to help find a few hours of silence before facing the agony of morning and the coming months of mourning.  

Soon it is Mother’s Day, the one day that we officially celebrate our mothers. But before that, in my mind, I will toast my mother and other mothers in my life who support and protect the lives of their children. I have been fortunate to share some of the best mothers in the world, including my wife, mother-in-law, and my sister. I am honored to salute them all.

America celebrates heroes like Rudy Giuliani and the American soldiers stationed in Iraq. Yet, we sometimes forget the real role models and mentors in our lives, the unsung women who tirelessly help their families, who quietly rescue the world.

It’s time to raise a glass of wine or for Weight Watcher’s sake, sugar-free grape juice or a simple glass of water, and celebrate our mothers, the heroes inside our homes.

 

“Love wholeheartedly, be surprised, give thanks and praise—then you will discover the fullness of your life.” Brother David Stendl-Rast

 

Safe Spirits

April 27, 2007

 

I am just content that the Imus fiasco is over and the constant 24-hour analysis of the Virginia Tech killer is almost done. Now, we can relax and enjoy the May sweeps, the last month of the network shows. We can be thankful that money will be given, that some needy, hungry people might have enough to eat until the money runs out. We can be grateful that Ford won’t go bankrupt anytime soon and that its employees are “safe.” For now.

 

There has been so much dispiriting news in Michigan that it’s nice to get a break. When Ford Motor’s new CEO, Alan Mulally, announced that Ford’s first quarter was not as bad as expected and that no more “layoffs or involuntary separations would be needed for its North American hourly or salaried workforce,” a lot of people, especially Ford employees, could finally take a deep breath. It was a small sign of relief, as welcomed as a tall glass of cold water in the Negev desert.

Ford narrowed its losses to $282 million in the January-March period, a large improvement from the $1.4-billion loss a year earlier and much better than the $1-billion-plus loss predicted by so many analysts. Strong sales of luxury vehicles and Ford cars in Europe, along with cost-cutting, contributed to the better numbers.

It’s an art form on Wall Street to make predictions worse than reality and than to “miraculously” exceed them on earnings announcement day. Ask Apple, Microsoft, Boeing, or Google, and other public companies that trounced what had previously been told to analysts. The difference is that these companies are hugely profitable and Ford no longer is.

It doesn’t matter for now as Mulally, the ex-CEO of Boeing, plays Act I as the new Ford savior and delivers sorely needed semi-good news.

On the same night, Ford was one of the main sponsors of American Idol and took part in the much-anticipated “Idol Gives Back” shows on April 24th and 25th. These shows were intended to inspire and educate viewers on poverty and to raise money for CPEF, the Charity Projects Entertainment Fund, which is devoted to helping children and young people who live in extreme poverty in Africa and the United States.

Bono, Miss Piggy, Ben Stiller, Dr. Phil, Ellen Degeneres, Madonna, Celine Dion and Elvis together (in an edited video from one of his concerts) were just a few of the entertainers included. The sponsors? Ford and News Corporation, owner of Fox and the American Idol show, were just two of many companies that donated and matched callers who gave.

There were songs, jokes, and performances from ex-idols as well as the six remaining contestants of this season.  At the end of the night, arguably the best performer of Tuesday night, 17-year-old Jordin, was the last one left, crying that she was probably finished. Then, Ryan Seacrest said, “I told you that this was going to be shocking, believe me. Jordin, you are also safe.” The 17-year-old girl, like Sanjaya the week before, stood in front of millions, stunned but still “safe” for a week.

So next week, the 60 million votes will be added to next week’s tally and two of the contestants will wave goodbye. But this doesn’t make critics happy.  A blog site, realityblurred.com, wrote, “So, let’s get this straight: The subject matter is so serious that it’s not okay to eliminate someone, but it’s okay to lie to the audience and emotionally manipulate a 17-year-old?” Good point, but I wonder why so many take so much of this stuff so seriously. Do you know that over 60 million dollars was raised and more will be donated before next week’s show?

I have read very little complimentary words about the “Idol Gives Back” show. And so I like to ask, is it that hard to praise a TV show that’s so successful, to say something good about producers actually doing something good for a change, even if those producers include an egotistic-hyper-critical man who’s part owner of the entire massive-money-making enterprise?

A cartoon clip, showing the Simpsons family as judge, came on in the middle of Wednesday’s show, making good old American fun of Fox and American Idol. It showed Homer releasing a trap door under an auditioning Simon Cowell who had just “auditioned awfully,” as Simon himself would have said. A trap door was released, Simon fell through, and Bart Simpson looked into the hole, saying, “The lions haven’t eaten this well since Dunkleman” (who was the co-host of Season 1 Idol.)

Yeah, The Simpsons movie is coming out soon, owned by Fox. So yes, money is being made, even while we laugh. But what’s wrong with making fun of yourself? American Idol and The Simpsons don’t take Fox or themselves very seriously and neither should we.

I am just content that the Imus fiasco is over and the constant 24-hour analysis of the Virginia Tech killer is almost done. Now, we can relax and enjoy the May sweeps, the last month of the network shows. We can be thankful that money will be given, that some needy, hungry people might have enough to eat until the money runs out. We can be grateful that Ford won’t go bankrupt anytime soon and that its employees are “safe.” For now.

Now is all we have and all we know. Like Jordin and Lakisha, we are safe, in good spirits, for now.

 

“(Faith) is the response of the soul to the divine thrust toward perfection, toward greater, more perfect wholes.” Rabbi Jacob B. Agus

 

Brothers in Arms

May 1, 2007

 

Here is the difference between the two democracies: Does anyone believe that Israel would stretch out a war for four years? 34 days is a long war for Israel while it seems like minutes for the United States.

 

After an Israeli government commission lambasted its leader and his cohorts for last summer’s war against the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed that he would not leave office.

The commission accused him of having decided hastily to go to war, never asking for a detailed military plan, refusing to consult outside the army and setting “over-ambitious and unobtainable goals.” In their words, Mr. Olmert had been responsible for a “severe failure in exercising judgment, responsibility, and prudence.”

The prime minister said on Israeli television and radio, “It would not be right for me to resign and I will not do so.” Yet, he praised the commission for its report and announced he would appoint a team to study it fully and carry out its recommendations.

We must wonder if Ehud Olmert and George W. Bush are long-lost brothers in arms or extremely close-knit friends, at least. I often think these days of the Yiddish word for craziness, “mishigoss”. It’s the perfect word to express the current state of our “world leadership”.

Israel’s anger over a poorly planned war that cost lives, money, and may have actually strengthened a terrorist organization is palpable. Eitan Cabel, a junior minister in Olmert’s coalition government said he could “no longer sit in a government that Ehud Olmert heads” and resigned. Meanwhile, in the United States, Hillary Clinton derides the president about the Iraq war but won’t apologize for her authorization vote and continues to “serve” in the Senate while she raises money for her 2008 election campaign.

The Israeli people are angry at their government’s ineptitude while 30% of the American citizens polled still believe Bush is doing a “heckuva job”. How do you spell the Yiddish word, “meshugena”?

In a salon.com essay, (“The Private War of Chuck and Tom Hagel, April 30, 2007), Myra MacPherson reported what Chuck Hagel told her years ago. “I voted then to do what I could to stop wars.” He said then, “There is no glory in war.” Today, he is one of two Republican senators to join with 49 Democrats in voting for a war-funding bill that mandates withdrawal in 2008. Hagel said, “It is wrong to escalate our military involvement in Iraq. It will end in disaster. You bog down and you bog down and you can’t get out.”

The Hagel brothers learned their lessons in the 60s while serving in Vietnam. They served in the same infantry squad in the Mekong Delta, watching their comrades shredded by land mines, collecting five Purple Hearts between them. As they walked together one day in 1968, “flying shrapnel ripped through their squad,” hit Tom’s arm and lodged in Chuck’s chest. Myra writes, “Ignoring his own wound, Tom frantically wrapped compression bandages around Chuck’s chest to stop the fountain of blood, praying his older brother would live long enough to make it out of the jungle.” A month later, “Chuck dragged an unconscious Tom out of a burning armored personnel carrier just before it blew up, turning his own face into a mass of bubbling blisters. Blood poured out of Tom’s ears and now it was Chuck’s turn to pray.”

MacPherson writes about the brothers’ relationship with their drunken father who died in 1962, the strength of their mother who raised four sons herself and the horrible irony of 1969 when youngest son and brother, Jim, then 16 and a star quarterback, hit a telephone pole with his car after a party. Home from Vietnam, Tom had to identify the body of his dead brother.

During the next decades, Tom became a liberal law professor, Chuck a wealthy entrepreneur and conservative senator. But over the years, their feelings about war converged. When Chuck and Tom Hagel heard tapes of Lyndon Johnson and his advisors that were made two years before the teenage Hagel brothers went to Vietnam, they realized the horrifying truth. The tapes, Tom said, “acknowledged that they weren’t going to win the war but kept dragging it on to get the best deal. They sent people to a slaughter just to wait it out to get the best political deal.”

Tom was against the Iraq war from the start but Chuck voted to authorize the president to go to war. “I believed the president and others who said they would exhaust all diplomatic efforts, “he said. “Which they did not. They told us they would and they did not.”

When President Bush announced plans for the surge, Hagel called it the “most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.” On his return from Iraq last month, Chuck gave his younger brother Mike his observation, “Every time I go over, it gets worse. It is so bad now, it is pathetic.”

Chuck realizes war is not one man’s fault. The president was heavily influenced and may have been convinced to begin war by Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. Likewise, in Israel, defense minister, Amir Peretz of the Labor Party and former chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, were severely criticized by the Israel commission for their roles in starting the Lebanon Hezbollah war. Today, Rumsfeld is out of a job, Peretz’s career is “in tatters” and Halutz has resigned. But Bush, Cheney, and Olmert continue in their jobs, none of them close to resigning.

Here is the difference between the two democracies: Does anyone believe that Israel would stretch out a war for four years? 34 days is a long war for Israel while it seems like minutes for the United States. And that’s the fundamental distinction. Most Americans and Israelis are angry for two unnecessary wars but the length of Israel’s war has been 1/48th of the American bloodbath…so far.

Let’s applaud Olmert and Israel for one thing: They got out and ended the war a little over a month after the first bombs. Israel still fights Hamas and Hezbollah and keeps its security forces ready for battle, but the big war is over, for now.

Was it worthwhile? Did it accomplish its goals? Not in the commission’s opinion or in most Israeli polls, but now, Israel is somewhat back to normal…until the next imbroglio.

What’s the goal in Iraq, to create democracy? Are we there to stabilize the country from further violence? Maybe we’re holding steady until the next election when Bush can go quietly into the dark night.

Ask yourself this: Is the United States government dragging out the Iraq war to get the “best deal”? We just bog down and bog down, sending over 3300 American soldiers to slaughter, waiting it out, 49 months and counting….

 

“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” Christopher Reeve

Levin in the House

May 21, 2007

 

What can we do? We can relax and hope that those we elect will eventually do the right thing. Or we can muster whatever voices we have to aid our Governor and to help our Senator, this man of logic and reason, convince other Senators and the administration to abandon their differences and discuss actual solutions. We can demand that they be “reasonable” and due whatever it takes to make the United States a better country.

 

In the last three decades, the senator with the glasses below his eyes has been watched and heard so often on television that he almost feels part of the family. Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Senior Senator and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, could be our uncle or zadeh.

Following the Synergy Shabbat service May 18th at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, over 400 people recited prayers, dined from the buffet dinner, and waited for the senator flying in from Washington, D.C.   

When he arrived, Carl Levin was in good spirits, joking that he was asked to speak for 45 minutes but only had “20 minutes of material” and said he could read it over again to fill the time. He made mention of his Central High classmates in attendance, his “Class of ’56.” A voice quickly bellowed “’52” and he admitted that Levin’s age had withered his memory.

The Jewish senator with the highest seniority spoke that the Iraq War and the administration’s policies during the last four years have not strengthened us. Instead, they have weakened our overall security and diminished our standing in the world. He told of a Korean War veteran in Ann Arbor who had asked Carl one wish: to have our “reputation restored in the world.” Levin said that the “arrogance of the administration,” the rampant use of secret torture and disregard for the Geneva Convention rules, the lack of direct discussion with other world leaders, and our consistent focus on warfare had created much more animosity toward the United States, severely weakening our country.

Levin had no trouble filling the time as hands rose across the audience, many asking about Iraq. He said that his Levin-Reid Amendment pushes for troop reductions within 120 days and provides consequences in the event of the Iraq Government’s “failure to make substantial progress towards meeting the political benchmarks that they had agreed among themselves.” Setting a timetable and deadlines, Levin said, was the best way to begin the ending of the Iraq quagmire.

The Senator, elected for five consecutive terms since 1978, wasn’t asked about Israel’s continuing skirmishes with Hamas as the United States stood silent or the Michigan’s budget deficit ballooning to $802-million. Levin’s position in the Senate seems relegated to dealing with Iraq and trying to make the executive branch more accountable. Tackling Israel and Michigan’s woes seems beyond “the Senate’s wise counsel on the nation’s most precipitous issues” (Lansing State Journal; quoted on www.senate.gov).

In his new book, The Assault on Reason, Al Gore echoes Levin. “People are trying to figure out what has gone wrong in our democracy, and how we can fix it,” Gore writes. He notes that the political process is heavily tilted toward sound bites on television and elections demand the raising of huge amounts of money for TV commercials. Before the invasion of Iraq, he mentions, the Senate floor was ominously silent, debate and discussion mostly absent, as many Senators were gone, fund-raising for their next elections. He writes that reasoned debate seems part of a bygone era and asks, “Why do reason, logic and truth seem to play a diminished role in the way America now makes important decisions?”

Carl Levin seems like part of this bygone era but as Armed Services Committee Chairman and as senior member of the Senate majority, he still has the power to make a difference. And we in the audience still have a chance to be heard and push for the economic health of Michigan, for peace in Israel and the United States. A woman from the audience, a classmate of Carl at Central High, was not afraid to raise her voice. She stood up, posed a question, and asked why Levin hadn’t answered her emails. He apologized, calling her one of his “toughest critics and friends.” I admired her, realizing we can’t just gripe about our unhappiness with elected leaders. We have the opportunity to write, email, and call our senators, congressmen, and the President.

The Iraq War and its accelerating death count continue unimpeded while peace in Israel seems like a fantasy. Health care costs in America continue to rise as gas prices approach $4.00 a gallon, and Michigan’s elected officials can’t agree on anything to help our state’s economic dilemma. We watch and wait, frustrated that nothing is getting done.

What can we do? We can relax and hope that those we elect will eventually do the right thing. Or we can muster whatever voices we have to aid our Governor and to help our Senator, this man of logic and reason, convince other Senators and the administration to abandon their differences and discuss actual solutions. We can demand that they be “reasonable” and due whatever it takes to make the United States a better country.

We must push them to work together to restore America’s dignity. As Al Gore writes, “We the people—as Lincoln put it, ‘even we here’—are collectively still the key to the survival of America’s democracy.”     

 

“When you know that you’re capable of dealing with whatever comes, you have the only security the world has to offer.” Harry Browne (1933-, American Financial Advisor, Writer)

Sequels Part I

May 26, 2007

 

We are witnessing the 4th sequel of “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” and President George W. Bush said yesterday that this new sequel will have even more deaths and bloodshed than Iraq War I, II, and III.

 

I was almost delirious waiting for Spiderman 3, because I thought the previous movies were exhilarating and touching, two of the best movies made in the last ten years. So I bought tickets online and went with my son, Kyle, on his first day home from his third year of college. Though it had moments of intense thrills and some add-ons to the original plot, the movie was mostly disappointing. The movie audience laughed awkwardly at times as Peter Parker, virtually untouchable as Spiderman, spent much of the film in tears. After midnight, Kyle, other viewers, and I left the theatre quiet and tired.

Since then, Shrek the Third came and conquered the box office and on this Memorial Day weekend, the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie will be seen on over 4000 screens in the U.S. It’s just the start of this summer of sequels, which will be in full gear with the fifth Harry Potter movie opening on July 13th, a week before the seventh and final book.

We are witnessing the 4th sequel of “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” and President George W. Bush said yesterday that this new sequel will have even more deaths and bloodshed than Iraq War I, II, and III. The House and Senate just approved $100 million for the military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan without getting what they had been requesting, predetermined withdrawal dates. By September, General David Petraeous, commander of the U.S. forces in Iraq, is to report on progress made since the Bush-ordered surge of troops early in the year. After the September 30th end-of-federal-year, the Pentagon will need another $150 billion to continue this war.

Spiderman 3 cost almost $300 million, more than any movie made, and it was full of death and violence. But this is a sliver of the budget for the war and pales in its depiction of graphic violence and death. Two days ago, two more U.S. solders were killed in combat in Anbar province while the hunt continues for two missing U.S. soldiers. Pfc. Joseph Anzack Jr., missing since a May 12th ambush, was found, his body identified on Wednesday, May 23rd.

On the next day, a bomb in a parked car in Fallujah killed at least 26 mourners and wounded another 45 in a funeral procession. The procession was for Alaa Zuwaid, a restaurant owner, who was shot to death in front of his home, nearly a month after his 25-year-old son was murdered.

The horror in Iraq gets more gruesome and what we get is the typical news quote: “In all, 87 people were killed or found dead Thursday in Iraq.” (Detroit Free Press, “Mourners killed in funeral procession,” Mark Silva, May 25, 2007)

In the same Detroit Free Press is a follow-up story (Detroit Free Press, “Memorial to a fallen soldier”, Erin Chan, May 25, 2007) to the one printed last Memorial Day about Holly McGeogh, Michigan’s only female soldier killed in the Iraq war. Last year’s article inspired me to write the poem, “Stop-Loss,” which was published in my book, Five Fathers, about the loss and suffering of Holly’s mom, Paula and her step-father, Mike. On this Memorial Day, these parents will be at the Lest They Be Forgotten memorial dedication for U.S. Army Spec. Holly McGeogh in Taylor, Michigan.

A 42-inch granite base with a bronze cast of combat boots, an M16 rifle and a helmet, will be dedicated on Memorial Day, a copy of the boots, rifle, and helmet that Holly once wore designed like a cross, the same kind of cross erected for Holly when she was killed in Iraq.  

In “Stop-Loss,” I wrote,

In the first

weekend of summer,

her mother lays a

bouquet of Holly’s

favorite yellow roses,

a tan stuffed rabbit

and small white stone

with smaller words:

“Miss you.” Both parents

so proud of their “rebel”

 

child so fearless to

fight for her country

they feared the day

they signed the forms

of consent, wondered

if they should lock the

front door, hide her keys

to freedom, still knowing

they must let their

headstrong child free,

 

free now to float

in the dreams of

her mother, her

daughter’s young body

still whole, her whispered

words a prayer of

redemption, a prayer

to stop the loss at

2466 Americans.

 

The current count of Americans dead in Iraq (May 26th, 2007) is 3440 with 12 waiting confirmation by the DOD. Within a week, the number of dead Americans in Iraq will be 1000 more than what was recorded on the last Memorial Day.

What else changes besides the number of dead from year to year? The Free Press writes about the dead soldier’s mom, “People tell her over and over that it gets easier every year, but to Paula, each year has been worse, a reminder that her daughter will not come home.”

What Holly’s mom wants is a simple wish for her daughter to be remembered and so she considers the memorial “an honor, another way that she won’t be forgotten.” Holly’s brother, Rob, wishes he had gone to Iraq instead of his sister. And Holly’s step-dad, Mike, mourned with liquor, drinking heavily after her death, but is now going to AA and has just celebrated 90 days of sobriety.

Erin Chan writes that Paula still sometimes feels her daughter with her in her black Toyota Tundra truck. Last fall, driving home from visiting a Michigan mother whose son had died in Iraq, her radio suddenly switched from an FM station to a song on a CD. The voice of Duncan Evans started singing “If I Die Before You Wake.”

The memories and sadness keep coming when we least expect them. Like sequels, they continue year after year, whether we want them or not, images of our loved ones now gone: death and loss playing over and over again in our heads.

 

Sequels Part II

May 28, 2007

 

No one could deny the patriotism and the pride of everyone who remembered the nobility of this woman soldier. We watched the courage of her mother, father, and brother, and others who continue to face the grim realities of war.

 

The sky is completely cloudless on this Memorial Day morning. The sun is fiery but the air is cool and crisp. Barbeques haven’t begun yet but in the next ten hours, thousands of houses all over America will light up propane or charcoal.

While millions of Americans get ready to celebrate their days off work, other families aren’t in the mood for celebration. They still mourn over their fathers, brothers, sons, and daughters, killed in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan or its sequel in Iraq.

One such soldier is Joseph G. Krywicki, whose name was just added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, bringing the total to 58,256. His older brother, Richard, refuses to attend the ceremony today in Washington, D.C. He won’t hear his brother’s name officially accepted, inscribed on the black-granite wall.

Richard’s wife will be there, proud that her years of effort have paid off. Mary and Richard’s sister, Geraldine (who died of cancer three years ago) fought for 20 years to get Joe’s name on the wall. Since the wall was erected, only soldiers who died in combat could have their names inscribed. Today’s Free Press article (“A family is divided over a belated honor,” Jeff Seidel, Detroit Free Press, May 28, 2007) tells about Joe, who died at age 19 when an American soldier accidentally shot him on Sept. 13, 1966.”Finally, after years of diligent protest from Mary and Geraldine, the military decided to allow soldiers who died from friendly fire but “in a combat zone” to be included.

Joe’s brother, who questioned the reasons for Vietnam after his brother’s death, doesn’t care about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, viewing it as the “government’s monument of failure.” “I still honor my brother,” he says but he and others died in vain in a war he is against. “Iraq is worse,” he emphasizes. “OK, we went over and got Saddam. I was with that. We got him, now get back here.”

Richard states, “I don’t hurt just for my brother. I hurt for all of them. All the lives and lies. Over and over and over.”

Many veterans’ families won’t say, as Richard Krywicki, that they are “against this government”. They can’t bear the thought that their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands or wives died in vain. Like the family of Holly McGeogh, they want to still believe that their loved ones died for causes noble and brave. Holly’s mother, Paula, step-father Mike and brother Rob are honored that their “Willy” is being memorialized today in Taylor.  

I was drawn to the dedication of the “Lest They Be Forgotten” Memorial in Honor of SPC Holly McGeogh, to witness the celebration of the “brave little soldier” who was a “beautiful and courageous daughter, sister, friend, and woman.”

Military moms, other families of “Michigan’s Fallen Heroes,” soldiers, veterans, Congressman Dingell, other leaders, three local news teams, and lots of family and friends joined John (Skip) Bushart, the Executive Director of the Michigan Chapter of Lest They Be Forgotten, who is a retired soldier and whose son died in Iraq two months before Holly.

We watched the Posting of the Colors, stood up for the National Anthem, Taps, bagpipes playing Amazing Grace, benediction, a song written and dedicated to Holly, and “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood that had everyone linking hands and raising them to the sky.

Major Curtis Kuetemeyer, Holly’s company commander, who doesn’t look much older than a teenager, was the featured speaker and spoke eloquently about Holly. She always wanted to join the military, participated in the Army JROTC program in high school and volunteered to join the military, not afraid of any assignment in Iraq. “Her smile was contagious” and “she worked tirelessly;” she couldn’t wait to eventually come home to mom and shop until “she looked fine.” Holly volunteered for her mission, taught a Sheik’s kids “duck duck goose,” and was instantly killed with two other soldiers by an Improvised Explosive Device, the greatest cause of deaths in Iraq.  The Major said that what drove him and others in the Armed Forces was to “fight for freedom and honor in her honor.”

The Memorial was raised with a bronze cast of combat boots, an M16 rifle, and a helmet, the American flag rising above it. Holly’s mother received two more honors and gifts as the crowd continued to clap.

No one could deny the patriotism and the pride of everyone who remembered the nobility of this woman soldier. We watched the courage of her mother, father, and brother, and others who continue to face the grim realities of war.

What if Richard Krywicki is right that the soldiers in Iraq have died in vain and that the government “lies over and over again?” Even so, we can still have pride for those who volunteer to sacrifice their lives for our country. Whether the government is honest, just or moral, the young adults who go to war for us are every bit worth celebrating. On this Memorial Day, we can simply say thanks.

 

Shalom

June 11, 2007

 

What do the Sopranos, Rabbi Nevins, and my daughter Ilana have in common?

 

After over 7 years, 6 seasons, and 86 episodes, “The Sopranos” ended its HBO television life the way it began, with controversy, innovation, death, and darkness. In the last 7 episodes of the last season, Tony Soprano had a fistfight with his brother-in-law, saved his son from a drowning suicide, dragged his son across the floor in anger, cheated on his wife again, helped suffocate his nephew after a car accident, faced the murder of his brother-in-law and the shooting of his second-in-command and friend, and ended up locked in a home with a shotgun over his large belly.

The last show ever, written and directed by the creator, David Chase, moved quickly toward its ending, after the brutal murder of rival mob boss, Phil Leotardo. The ending, not surprisingly, was not wrapped up neatly and clearly. It was a big question mark, with Tony meeting his wife and son at a family restaurant, two ominous men lurking near their table and his daughter walking in. The Journey song, “Don’t Stop Believing,” played in the background, and Tony looked almost contented as the song and film suddenly went black. Was there going to be a murder? Were the Sopranos now in a Witness Protection program? What was their future? The ending was filled with doubt, but after all the turmoil since 1999, Tony really needed an ending…any ending.

Shalom, Tony. Peace be with you.

The Friday before, on the beginning of Shabbat, we waved goodbye to our beloved Rabbi Nevins at Adat Shalom. Almost 800 people came to dinner, sang in prayer, gave him a Detroit Tigers jacket, U of M cap, and beautifully constructed album with photos and words from many of his congregants. After 13 years, he was leaving Farmington Hills for the Big Apple to be Dean of the Jewish Seminary, to train future rabbis for the Conservative Movement.

Five days earlier, Judy and I stayed up all night with our daughter, Ilana, at the Senior All Night Party at North Farmington High School. . My wife had worked for the last eight months with her friend, Lisa, and dozens of other North parents to create the most exciting, stimulating, memorable environment that our daughter, Ilana, and almost 300 other seniors would never forget. The school was designed like a huge pirate ship and the theme of the night was “Treasured Times at North.”

A few hours earlier, on Sunday, June 3rd, Ilana and 312 North Farmington seniors wore their cap and gowns, listened to speeches, walked the large floor at Compuware Ice Arena, received their diplomas and celebrated the end of their high school careers.

The last year of high school was a dizzying blur: the first day back from summer break, new classes, worries about big assignments, homework, tests, our daughter’s work as co-President of the school’s Humanitarian Club, in charge of raising money for good, charitable causes. There were the college preparations, deciding on Michigan State University, helping to teach at Forest Elementary School, holidays, a spring break Grand Princess cruise to the Western Caribbean with three of Ilana’s friends and the Doyle family, more tests, the school musical, CATS, the Genocide interdisciplinary project featuring Paul Rusesabagina, and Awards Night in which many kids received various awards and scholarships. We were proud of our daughter’s 4.00 GPA as well as her scholarships and awards. Like other excited senior parents, we stopped and appreciated what our children were able to accomplish in their short 18 years of life.

If we were able to enjoy the ending, we could feel both thanks and sadness that our boys and girls were now ready to go forward, head to colleges, relationships, maybe marriages and their own children in the future who might graduate high school in 20 or 30 years.

We in Adat Shalom got to wish our rabbi the best of luck, hopeful that he will come back to Michigan for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah as well as other occasions. We can’t wait to go to New York for vacations and visit the rabbi. Judy and I can look ahead to Ilana coming home for holiday breaks, summer, and visiting her in East Lansing.

For Tony, we can still see HBO on demand, figure out the last episode, repeat the others, see the edited Sopranos with commercials on A&E, or rent the DVDs of all the seasons. Of course, isn’t it only a stupid television show or as son A.J. would say, just a “jack-off fantasy on TV?” Wrong.

“The Sopranos” for me and for thousands of viewers was not strictly TV business. It was personal, about a fat, balding father (like me) dealing with running his own business family while being the “head of his household,” his loving wife and two children beside him. I sometimes felt a kinship, a deep understanding of the loneliness, pain, and selfishness that Tony felt as the head of two families. This TV show may have been the most honest, revealing, heartbreaking show ever about family, its confrontations about loyalty, loss, intimacy, betrayal, lying, cheating, hoping, and true love. Few of our lives are as violent and scarred as the Sopranos’ but the family dynamics almost always felt believable, true to life, dead-on accurate.

Now, the new episodes are over, gone. Today, the reruns begin. Goodbye, hello, shalom.

Rabbi Yoskowitz said of the word, shalom, that it contains the sadness of goodbye but within the same word is hello. When we say goodbye, we are also praying for hello, ready for new beginnings, ready for those who leave to return again. Unlike death, the goodbyes of Tony Soprano, Rabbi Nevins, and my daughter, Ilana, aren’t final. They can come back in reruns. There is always hope that they can return to us someday.

Shalom is my favorite word in Hebrew and in English. Besides goodbye and hello, the word also means peace.

I am at ease, knowing these goodbyes aren’t final. With the hope of new hellos, I can now deeply feel the sanctity of peace.

 

“A hero is someone who can keep his mouth shut when he is right.” Yiddish Proverb

Little Noah

June 12, 2007

 

a boy not yet three

runs into the next room

his high voice shutters

against the plastered

ceiling if he only knew

what his mother just

learned the doctors

calling it quits

giving her the

sentence six months

just six months

to ease any

pain and simply enjoy

his perilous laughter

his lilting

tremulous life

 

“When there’s hope, there’s life. It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again. We’ll need to be brave to endure the many fears and hardships and the suffering yet to come.” Anne Frank

 

Father’s Day

June 17, 2007

 

Father’s Day isn’t for elusive dreams. It’s for families eating bagels and lox together, sharing a dinner with the folks, opening up cards and gifts at the in-laws. It’s a day to appreciate being a father, having the most important people in our lives around us. It’s about opening gifts that were bought by the wife, parents, parents-in-law, sister, sister-in-law, and brother-in-law, all thankful that we were lucky enough to be fathers and help bring children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews into the world.

 

When I woke on Father’s Day, I went outside with my t-shirt and work out shorts to get the newspaper. Father’s Day was the day I would be featured in an article in the local Farmington Observer. I was nervous about the photo I took when I met the writer, Della Cassia, at the Farmington Hills Library. We were supposed to meet and talk inside the library but it turned out to be the library’s “Staff Day.” So when the photographer came, he suggested I go up on the hill and sit with my book, Five Fathers, clutched in my left hand. I wanted him to take a picture from underneath the book, looking up into the sky. The book’s cover has five black and white shots of clouds and I thought it would be cool to show the cover’s clouds underneath the clouds. The photographer thought otherwise and told me to sit up straight and snapped away.

I had been photographed and featured in two stories (“He crams in writing time,” Bill Laitner, Detroit Free Press, April 29, 2007,) in the West Oakland section of the Detroit Free Press seven weeks earlier. Eric Seals had taken photos of me typing in my Toyota Highlander. The caption read, “Arnie Goldman, 50, of Farmington Hills had just dropped his daughter off at her school and he had some downtime, so he parked, pulled out his laptop and started writing about free speech; ‘how what happened with Imus and the Virginia shootings is related,’ Goldman said. Goldman has published two books and is working on a third.” Bill Laitner wrote about my book and my writing, “The saying goes: Everyone has at least one book inside them. Most of us just never find the time to write it. But take a tip from Arnie Goldman: There’s never time. So start anyway.”

I was both embarrassed and proud of the articles, the one about me as well as the story, “2 men find strength after tragic crashes,” which followed up on Gary Weinstein, two years after the accident which killed his wife, Judith, and two sons, Alex and Sam. I wrote about him in the essay, “Passages of Grief,” which is in my book, Five Fathers. The Free Press article is about dealing with losses and is subtitled, “Writer who lost his brother finds connection with a dad who lost family.” After speaking with Gary, Bill asked me to send him a copy of the book. He ended the essay, “Weinstein said Goldman got it right when he wrote that people can’t understand death, only ‘be grateful for the people we were lucky to have in our past.”

Five Fathers is about fathers and mothers who must cope with the loss of their children. But the book is also about being thankful. On this Father’s Day, I was very thankful that I am a father with three great kids and that my father is still alive and relatively healthy after 75 years.

Like my favorite Father’s Day show last year on “Everybody Hates Chris,” if you’d ask what I’d really like on Father’s Day, it would be forgetting the heaviness of being a father, not reading about me or thinking about loss. I probably would say, “Can’t I just do what I want without complaints, without the normal requirements?” Chris’s TV father had the freedom to watch TV on Father’s Day and take naps all over his house. As they watched, my kids laughed and said, “Dad, that’s you.” My nickname, if chosen by them, would probably be The Napper or The Farter, not Father. To them, I’m more like Homer Simpson than some great father figure, which is disappointing. Yet, I would argue a great strength of fatherhood is to live with disappointment.

We must be stoic when disappointed, opening our Father’s Day gifts and finding ties, socks, or shirts, gifts we absolutely care less about. My wife couldn’t find anything to give her father and so she bought three shirts. When we asked my dad what he wanted, he answered the typical, “Nothing,” so we bought a Nordstrom’s and movie gift card. I said the same thing because what I really dreamt of was that unbelievable OSIM iMedic 380 Massage chair that gives a full-body deep-kneading massage. I’d rather have it at home than lying in the clouds in the middle of Brookstone. And if you ask what else I’d like, it’s the chair combined with a Sony Grand Wega 70” HDTV and full six-speaker surround sound in my own private room, paid for by someone else. Yet, I knew I’d get something a lot less expensive and dreamy than an ultimate entertainment room.

Father’s Day isn’t for elusive dreams. It’s for families eating bagels and lox together, sharing a dinner with the folks, opening up cards and gifts at the in-laws. It’s a day to appreciate being a father, having the most important people in our lives around us. It’s about opening gifts that were bought by the wife, parents, parents-in-law, sister, sister-in-law, and brother-in-law, all thankful that we were lucky enough to be fathers and help bring children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews into the world. Like fathers everywhere, I was there with my wife for the ride, and what a ride it’s been.  

Every Father’s Day, I begin early, reading newspapers. On this day, I read in Time Magazine that “Roadside bombs account for roughly 80% of U.S. deaths in Iraq, up from 50% at the start of the year.” In the Detroit Free Press, I read that “some IDs and personal items” of Pvt. Byron W. Fouty of Waterford, Michigan were found in Iraq, which Fouty’s stepfather, Gordon Dibler, said was “encouraging news.” This father still believed that his son is alive and will eventually come back for their family reunion. Online, I read of a suicide bombing in a bus in Kabul, Afghanistan, the fifth in three days, that killed 35 police instructors and wounded 52.

On Sunday, June 17th, I took the Farmington Observer out of its plastic sleeve and saw myself on the cover, without a smile, holding up my book so the reader can see its title and the clouds. Della Cassia, formerly a writer for the North Farmington Gazette, started, “Arnie Goldman’s eyes hold a painful memory. Every time he talks about it, his eyes widen and his gaze wanders back to that fateful August day 24 years ago.”

I don’t know why she wrote August. I told her July 21st and the book mentions the date many times. But other than a wrong fact and the other inaccuracy that my father “started IDN-Hardware Sales 50 years ago,” the rest of the article is accurate, using quotes from the book. “Passing kidney stones, dating, baseball and basketball, music and prayer, mitzvahs and stage frights are all part of the collection of stories in Five Fathers,” Cassia writes.

The world’s news stays violent and sad, but other than the Observer with me on the cover, Father’s Day was mostly the same as any other Sunday. Judy was upset that she had to go to work early for Chicos and miss the beginning of Father’s Day. I wish she could have joined me and had breakfast with my sister, Leslie, and niece, Karenna, who were due to drive back to Columbus to see their husband and father and celebrate with our children’s “Uncle Bruce.”

I often wonder the point of these “holidays,” why the day is designated Father’s Day. But after I read Bob Perks, “I Don’t Want a Tie This Year,” (beliefnet.com, 6/16/07) I began to realize what Father’s Days should be about. He wrote, “Here it is. All I want for Father’s Day is your time….I want to look at you. I want to laugh with you. I want to sit quietly and do nothing for no particularly good reason….I want you. I miss who you are and who we were. I want to get silly and roll down a hill. I want to talk about life and what you want from it. Ask me anything. I’ll answer truly. Just give me the moment to hold onto once more.”

Bob reminisced, “I sit with the photo albums and thumb through decades of parties and magic captured in stillness. I touch your face at ten years old and hear you say, ‘I love you, daddy!’ Say it again for me….Look closely at me. I am getting older…I’m sorry I can’t wait for that ‘moment too late.’ I don’t want it to be a day years from now when you are both standing close by my hospital bed telling me how sorry you were for all the wasted time….Please give me your time for Father’s Day. I really don’t need a tie.”

Thankfully, I didn’t get a tie this year. I received some nice cards, including one from Judy and the kids that says, “It’s Father’s Day. Time to ponder that immortal philosophical question…If a dad falls asleep in the woods, does he drive all the woodland creatures bonkers with his snoring?” What made it funny is when I opened the card, the sound of snoring was loud and familiar. What I also got was cash, a check, an Apple iTunes gift card, and a Dunder Mifflin polo shirt from “The Office” that Kyle bought at the NBC store in Manhattan. My wife and kids bought me the Complete New Yorker on one portable hard drive, an astonishing compilation of everything that’s ever been in the weekly magazine since 1925 until 2006.

I wish I had more time alone with my daughter, Ilana, who’s off to college in two months and Kyle, who’s in New York City for a Lehman Brothers internship. The day before, Judy bought a Bat Mitzvah suit and dress for Marlee and as I watched, I didn’t want to think about how much older she looks than just two years ago. But Marlee took the time to write me a poem which may have been my favorite gift on Father’s Day:

“Today is the day I thank you, Dad

For always cheering me up when I’m sad,

You’re kind, loving, funny, and smart

You don’t have to worry because you’ll always be in my heart.

Swimming with you is always a blast,

But the time always flies by so fast.

I love when we spend time together just you and me,

You have taught me all the life lessons so I can be who I want to be.

I love when we watch “Everybody Hates Chris,”

I don’t think a love like this truly exists.

Listening to XM radio is always the best,

Having a dad like you means I’m truly blessed.

So today is the day I thank you, Dad

For giving me the best times I have ever had.”

Father’s Day finished with the Tigers beating the Phillies on TV, Tiger missing a putt to tie on the final hole of the US Open, and a dinner at California Pizza Kitchen with my parents, Judy, and our two girls. We went next door to Borders and bought the Mojo in the Morning Phone Scam Wedding Edition, listened in the car, and laughed at the scams, including one in which a bride a few days before her wedding is notified that what she thought was supposed to be yellow cake is now a fabulously scrumptious “Jell-O Cake.” Marlee’s friend, Lilly, whom she hadn’t seen in a while, slept over, and we went to Yoz Yogurt before it closed.

All in all, it was a nice Father’s Day, a good day to celebrate being a dad in

America. It was my father’s 50th Father’s Day with me and my 20th Father’s Day since I was crowned a new dad.

Father’s Day is a day to realize and appreciate how lucky some of us are. My kids are alive and happy, far away from war, far from the blood and fear. I had no roses around me to smell so instead, I placed a Green Tea Chai teabag in instant hot water and took a deep breath. It was the sweet smell of knowing and savoring the short, flickering moments of love.

 

“When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the morning light, for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food, and the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies within yourself.” Tecumseh, Shawnee Chief

Magic

July 23, 2007

 

If I had Dumbledore’s powers, I’d bring another World Series to the city of Detroit and make Kenny materialize so he could see his first World Series game.

 

Almost exactly 25 years after my brother, Kenny, vanished from the living,

bookstores across the country started selling Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and last book in the series phenomenon created by J.K. Rowling.

My son, Kyle, named after Kenny on his day of birth almost 21 years ago, stood in a long line at the Borders bookstore near our home, anxious to bring home the book and stay up all night reading. He had just finished the sixth book for the second time and seen the fifth movie with me three nights earlier.

I waited up to make sure Kyle came home safely to read in the warmth of his own bed, far away from roads lined with anxious, frenzied drivers.

My son refused to look on the Internet or listen to anyone who might blurt out anything about the plot. He and millions of loyal readers wondered whether Harry or Voldemort would make it out of the pages alive. Either way, they were already mourning the loss of their fictional hero, gone into the netherworld of post-novel eternity.

I had not read the books but had seen all five movies, the fifth one a few nights earlier with my son and my oldest daughter. I felt attached to the series because my children have grown up with them and my son has read each thoroughly, from the moment he brought them home to the last page when he felt stuffed with magical pleasures.

The obsession began ten years ago, at the end of 1997, when Kyle was only eleven. Since then, he and millions of others have shared the same delightful obsession with Harry and the Hogwarts characters.

Lately, I have been more transfixed by the irony of the publishing date than for the frenzy for the latest book. A quarter century earlier, I had never heard of J.K. Rowling and her imaginary boy, Harry Potter. The only boy I intimately knew was my 13-year-old brother.

A few hours before midnight, Kenny and my father drove home from a Detroit Tigers baseball game and less than a mile from their home, my dad’s Chevy was crushed on the passenger side by another car that had crossed a blinking red light. They were rushed into a hospital a few miles away and a few minutes after midnight, on July 21, 1982, the doctors announced to my family in the emergency waiting room that Kenny’s life had “deceased.”

I wonder if Kenny as a 38-year-old grown man would have been a Harry Potter fan. If he were alive, would he have rushed into a bookstore to claim his copy and devour it before morning?

Imagining these possibilities are futile now, as is worrying about driving to the Tigers baseball game with my son a day after the anniversary of my brother’s death. But that’s what I chose, to not worry about fate and make use of the Tiger tickets I owned for the next day’s baseball game.

I drove with my son on the Chrysler Highway instead of the Lodge, which had been closed for months. We arrived and parked a few blocks from Comerica Park. I knew my son was tired, staying up late to finish the book. I didn’t ask him about the plot or how the book ended.

I didn’t want to know if Harry lives or dies.

When we arrived at the stadium, I thought of the game I attended with my father a few months earlier when he talked about his childhood hero, Hank Greenberg. I thought about the mysteries of fate, the connections between my father, Kenny, Kyle, and me. I was struck not by sadness but by a magical world of memories.

I remembered how close Kenny and I came to being at the 1982 Super Bowl in the Pontiac Silverdome. I thought of the times I played catch with my father and brother and remembered playing catch with my son ten years ago, when Harry Potter was just introduced to the world.

Kyle and I sat in the first row of the upper deck between home plate and first, the sun’s rays hitting us hard. We were excited to see our first game together since Opening Day, happy the Tigers were still in first place with a possible chance to play in another World Series.

I thought of the magic of fantasy, how the dead often show up in the Harry Potter movies to visit the living.

If I had Dumbledore’s powers, I’d bring another World Series to the city of Detroit and make Kenny materialize so he could see his first World Series game. If I were like Harry Potter, I’d summon Kenny to fly around the new stadium as if he were playing a game of Quidditch, floating past my seat so I could see that he was still out there somewhere, not just bones in the ground.

But I’m a mere mortal, a Muggle, and all I could conjure was the magic of my mind. I could picture my little brother just like I remembered him, a thin, short boy of 13 with a long, angular face, straight black hair, and inquisitive eyes. He was sitting to the right of his nephew Kyle, with his old mitt in front of his face, shouting to the sky, ready to catch the very next foul ball.

 

“Life is not measured by how many breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” Unknown

Dunder Mifflin vs. IDN Hardware: The Match-Up

July 31, 2007

Why can’t we enjoy work like we enjoy watching TV about work?

 

Why do I watch The Office religiously? The NBC sitcom about the inner workings of the paper distributor, Dunder Mifflin, is the only show I must set on record if I can’t catch it on its original Thursday night. Maybe it’s the inside joke: am I watching an episode of my own company? Dunder Mifflin is an old-fashioned paper wholesaler and The Office takes place almost completely in its Scranton branch. Those in our company’s branches in Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia may feel more recognition than I do when they watch the mishigoss in a company that distributes paper products in a world with Staples, Office Max, and Office Depot down the street.

On its corporate website, Dunder Mifflin Inc. is “listed as a mid-cap regional paper-and-office-supply distributor with an emphasis on serving small business clients. With a corporate office in New York City, Dunder-Mifflin has branches in Buffalo, Stamford, Albany, Utica, Scranton, Akron, Camden, Nashua, and Yonkers.” My company, IDN-Hardware Sales, Inc., distributes locks and security products to regional small companies such as locksmiths, hardware stores, and door companies in Buffalo, Syracuse, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Hartford, Warren, and Livonia. But I would agree with Dunder’s leading salesperson, Dwight Schrute, who proudly announces, we offer better “service” than our large company competitors.  Dun

I like to watch the nefarious world of the modern day work environment and how regional manager, Michael Scott, navigates it. I enjoy the daily adventures of Angela, Creed, Dwight, Jim, Oscar, Pam, and the other fine team members and how they communicate with each other and screw up their company and each other. I like to watch the absurd pointlessness of their jobs.

I could easily write a sitcom based on the adventures of our outstanding company and its crackerjack employees. How many do we have now? Somewhere between 80 and 85, depending on how you quantify some of the part-timers. Anyway, I could but won’t write anything great or derogatory about myself of any of them. However, I could certainly mention some of the proud members of the Hardware Sales Hall of Fame, some of our past employees (excluding the names of course.)

I could mention the guy who looked strangely like Charles Manson (but with longer hair) who was fired from his warehouse job. I could say that I closed the door (just like Michael Scott would have) and watched when he came to the front door, scared of what weapon he might have brought with him. Thankfully, he came and went, another crisis brilliantly averted by my staff and me.

I could say something about that impressive-sounding interviewee who I thought might be our next great salesperson and eventually a few years later was listed in the local newspapers, shot dead after a drug deal went bad. How about my head warehouse receiving clerk who left town with his girlfriend after the police found he had stolen from the local car wash chain that bought padlocks from us?

I angrily remember the time I received the 50-page lawsuit on my desk brought from a woman who quit but said she was “wrongfully discharged.” I remember distinctly when I had to fire a guy from the warehouse for ineptitude and the tears he wept in my office. I can’t forget my relief when he came to the counter a few months later and said how happy he was in his new job at Amana.

In over 28 years in one company that grows from eight to eighty people, you’re bound to get good and bad employees. Unfortunately, I remember the bad a lot more than the good. And the stories that go along with them. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry over the very overweight inside sales person who fell in love with a customer service person at a manufacturer in the southeast and took a trip to visit her. When he came back, he wept to our sales manager that everything went great until he walked to her refrigerator one night and heard a loud crunch and when turning on the light, realized he had stepped on her beloved cat and killed it. Burdened with grief and guilt, he buried the cat in the backyard and when she asked him if he saw the cat the next morning, he said no but changed his story later.

She threw him out and he drove all the way back to Michigan, flooded with remorse. Not surprisingly, his sales dropped dramatically the month after and he eventually quit the company.

We have had so many employees leave that I can barely remember their names and when they worked, but I remember those who died.

In my office is a collage and a photo of another inside salesperson who was weakened with AIDS and eventually had to quit and died within the same year. He stands next to my uncle who worked for 15 years on our Livonia counter, servicing customers. My uncle could make me laugh whenever he wanted, with a crude joke and a put-down. Even though he wasn’t a manager, he was the original Michael Scott, working to make others laugh or groan. My uncle would have enjoyed Michael Scott and Ari Gold in the HBO show, Entourage. These are people who say what they want to make life at work less boring and miserable. They don’t care who gets upset as long as they have fun.

The new Inc. August 2007 issue states, “Fun! It’s the New Core Value.” How I wish it were so. I may face the wrath of employees who wonder why I can say anything funny or bad about anyone, even past employees. “Just shut up and sit” is the current work mantra.

I am doing just that now, shutting up and sitting, wondering if I should dig into University of Michigan’s price profiles, or write something funny that I remember.

I am still a procrastinator at heart and would rather read the latest newsletter of The Office than work. But seriously, even fun can be educational, like these “Workplace Safety Tips, by Dwight Schrute”:

Workers are getting injured, sick, and are dying in EVERY office, EVERY day.        You cannot avoid it. Unless you do the following.

  1. Do not fall. Falls (e.g. down stairs, out doors, windows, etc.) are dangerous and lead to fractures, sprains, contusions and death.
  2. Do not burn yourself. Overheating your tea is a good way to burn yourself. Do you want that? In order to assure that your skin is not harmed, tea should not be heated to more than 98.6 degrees.
  3. Stay in your seat. By staying in your seat, you are less likely to encounter any of these hazards. Wait until you have 3 tasks to do, and then get up.

As usual, Dwight is right. I am waiting for 2 more tasks to do before I get up out of

my chair. It’s the only safe and sensible thing to do.

 

The Warning

July 31, 2007

 

I like to think the tumor in my head is like Harry’s lightning mark. It is the symbol that life can be over before we know it, in an instant. It is the warning that we may lose what we take for granted, the important senses and parts of our bodies.

 

Philadelphia seems so long ago. When I listened to current methods of non-invasive radiation on benign brain tumors at the annual Acoustic Neuroma Convention, I was lost in my own brain fog. I couldn’t remember the plusses and minuses of Cyberknife vs. Gammarays, as I sat in a comfortable chair at the Doubletree Hotel’s Freedom Ballroom. When a neurosurgeon showed photos of a skull clamped tightly in a vice, Judy shuttered. Non-invasive? The skull had to be fixed so the laser would land exactly on the tumor, if it had any chance of shrinkage.

I just hoped that the patient in a vice grip would not be me. My acoustic neuroma has stayed at around 4 millimeters since the first MRI taken in the summer of 2003 after I’d lost hearing in my left ear for a week. I called the neurosurgeon before we left for Philly and he told me the good news: the tumor was pressing against the skull bone which probably had kept it from growing. For now, I was safe.

The tumor between my ear canal and my brain was still a warning and would not yet have to be removed.

I felt kind of cocky in a room filled with people with tumors, many survivors of brain surgery, some who lost balance nerves, taste glands, tear ducts, some with artificial hearing devices that detected sound, and some whose cheeks now drooped down to their mouths after losing their facial nerves.

I was just lucky, waiting, thankful to hear a thousand daily sounds in high definition quality, as if life were a Dolby or THX, 20-speaker, stadium-style movie. How we take for granted the unbelievable glory of this wonderful sense. We take for granted the miracles of our bodies and our lives.

When Judy and I helped move our son, Kyle, the same afternoon from a three story dusty apartment room to a fourth floor attic room, hearing and miracles were the last things on our minds. We climbed up a narrow two-foot stairway on an old wooden house on a street just off the University of Penn campus, not far from the security guard stationed two blocks away on 40th. My son was thrilled and jumped on this “great deal” a few months ago, sharing an old dilapidated fixer-upper with four other guys and four girls. Judy was upset that Kyle chose the attic bedroom of this old house without asking his mother.

The heat was stifling, the basement circuits kept shutting down from all of the window air conditioners, and Kyle had to go to the basement in the dark past the cockroaches to turn them on again. We had rented a van for one day to buy some furniture at Ikea after driving past the “bad south-side Philly neighborhood.” We got two of their smallest couches and a dresser that had hundreds of small pieces, just so we could carry parts up the stairs, after realizing the $50 couch Kyle bought months before which we had to hire a moving van to move, wouldn’t make it past the first floor.

After a day and a half of moving, shlepping, and working in a sweat-stained old attic, we were just thankful to get back to the hotel, take showers, and get back to Detroit. Kyle had to move back to start school after his August birthday and would finish the dresser then, and be on his own to handle the heat, the circuits, the air conditioners, and the other members of the house. It was like Big Brother 8 but worse, because no one was going to win any money, let alone a million. By the time college was done, we would be the ones spending absurd amounts for tuition, books, room and board, food, and unmentioned miscellaneous expenses like cheap couches, lamps, and a few fans every year. The college nightmare for us was coming soon to a close, to be followed by our daughter’s new freshman adventure much closer to home, at Michigan State.

On our way back to the airport, the cab driver warned us that we had escaped Philadelphia at a good time. On Saturday night, thousands had arrived right near our hotel to celebrate the “Greek Picnic,” the all-night party featuring another murder and a driver that mowed down a bike driver instead of telling him to move away.

I felt like Harry Potter escaping Godric’s Hollow for the hoped serenity of the forest. It was a pleasure to leave Philadelphia which had just witnessed its 200th city murder for the relative peace and quiet of Detroit. We could go back to our simple life, planning for a bat mitzvah, working, watching movies, and reading books.

I wanted to feel like Harry Potter, lost on a journey to escape his nemesis, Lord Voldemort. But I was so thankful to arrive home that I felt more like Tracy Turnblad, the fat but happy dancing girl in Hairspray. I could once again take it easy like Homer Simpson, the lumbering hero of Springfield, who cares more for beer and donuts than saving the world from environmental devastation, which he does in the new Simpsons movie.

It’s hard not to get swept up in all of the movies and books this summer. After seeing the 5th Potter movie and then taking my son’s advice to read the 6th Harry Potter book, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Price,” I started on the 7th and final in the series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” I wanted to see what all the buzz was about, if the book was as good as Kyle and the critics say.

After I finished the book, I felt tired and relieved. The book is filled with so many characters in so many stress-stretched circumstances that I just wanted peace and quiet. The scenes I found most compelling were the simplest, with Harry thinking about his own death and talking to Dumbledore’s spirit, finalizing all of the answers that J.K. Rowling had been laying clues throughout the scenes and books before.

Harry is a simple hero but a hero, nonetheless. Like Moses, he didn’t want to be a hero and fell into the role after a tragedy. Loyal to his friends and the memory of his family, he questions himself, Dumbledore, his fate, but always seems to find the right way. The book is as noisy as a movie with so many movie-like action sequences with characters flying and apparating everywhere, in scene after scene. But when Harry accepts his own fate and assumes that he must die to vanquish evil and to help others live, I became part of his mythical adventure. Even if we know that a long book series will not end with the death of its 17-year-old protagonist, we are willing to accept this fate if the God/author, Rowling, deems it so.

In the chapter, “The Forest Again,” Rowling writes of Potter’s acceptance of his impending death, “Would it hurt to die? All those times he (Harry) had thought that it was about to happen and escaped, he had never really thought of the thing itself: His will to live had always been so much stronger than his fear of death….Why had he never appreciated what a miracle he was, brain and nerve and bounding heart? It would all be gone…or at least, he would be gone from it.”

The lightning mark on Harry’s forehead has always signified that Potter is cursed as a target of death but also is a “chosen one” who has the potential for greatness. He realizes the warning is actually his ultimate calling.

I like to think the tumor in my head is like Harry’s lightning mark. It is the symbol that life can be over before we know it, in an instant. It is the warning that we may lose what we take for granted, the important senses and parts of our bodies.

I started writing again after finding out I had a tumor lodged near my brain with a high probability that it would grow and require brain surgery or radiation. I thought of this again as I read Everyman by Philip Roth, when the unnamed protagonist realizes what he’s always taken for granted, his body and his family.  The book begins at the main character’s funeral and in its compact 182 pages, spans his life, the scattered moments and memories of his past. It is about an average person’s life, how the great potential of a man to be kind and happy can turn to dust.

Before his last carotid artery surgery, the novel’s “hero” thinks back to when he was a boy like Harry Potter and Roth ends the book, “Nothing could extinguish the vitality of that boy whose slender little torpedo of an unscathed body once rode the big Atlantic waves from a hundred yards out in the wild ocean all the way in to shore. Oh, the abandon of it, and the smell of the salt water and the scorching sun! Daylight, he thought, penetrating everywhere, day after summer day of that daylight blazing off a living sea, an optical treasure so vast and valuable that he could have been peering through the jeweler’s loupe engraved with his father’s initials at the perfect, priceless planet itself—at his home, the billion-, the trillion-, the quadrillion-carat planet Earth! He went under feeling far from felled, anything but doomed, eager yet again to be fulfilled, but nonetheless, he never woke up. Cardiac arrest. He was no more, freed from being, entering into nowhere without even knowing it. Just as he’d feared from the start.”

Harry Potter loses his fear, faces death, and is awarded life. The nameless “Everyman” wants only to live but in his fear, he “enters into nowhere without even knowing it.” Both books highlight the fear of death and what, in its presence, makes our lives meaningful. Both show how one person makes a huge difference, good and bad, in the lives around them. These themes are found throughout the two works of fiction and also represented in words by William Wordsworth. As I rested with books and forgot about the travails of Philadelphia, I could focus for a few minutes on what is important.

Our world warns us that our loved ones will die and eventually us. So what should we do to make our mark? William Wordsworth wrote almost 200 years ago, “the best portions of a good man’s life: little, nameless unrewarded acts of kindness and love.” Or as I like to call these nameless unrewarded acts: little mitzvahs.

 

“One hour of repentance and good deeds in this world is more beautiful than all the life in the world to come.” Rabbi Jacob B. Kurshai, Mishna: Abot

Amnesia

August 2, 2007

 

We forget about the wars and overwhelming debt levels and the hurricanes of the last years, hoping like hell it’s all behind us.

 

The world spins so fast these days that I really don’t know if I’m coming or going, don’t know what side of the moon or sun we’re on. I know the moon was full two days ago but I’ve been too busy to worry about the cycle of the sun.

GM and Ford announced profitable quarters which made us temporarily forget that both companies and their suppliers have been hurting for the last few years. We can’t forget the housing market has been awful in Michigan which has spread throughout the United States and that fear for the credit markets after the subprime debacle has intensified. The stock market has taken a beating in the last few weeks after rising consistently but when American Home Mortgage, “the Internet’s leading mortgage lender, announced that lenders cut off their credit line, panic took over Wall Street.

Credit problems, large home builders losing millions, and financial institutions watching their stocks plummeting: it’s enough to bring back memories of the 1987 crash and the Nasdaq bubble bursting in 2000 and 2001. We had begun to have amnesia in the last four years as the Dow rose to record levels and the S&P reached new highs, far from the lows of 2002. We forgot that this happened even with billions that we have mortgaged on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though the U.S. government continues to pile on record debt while the U.S. dollar has plummeted to a multi-year low.

Maybe it’s fitting that the Bourne Ultimatum, the 3rd movie in the series of spy thrillers, is being released this weekend. In the frenetic pace of the last two movies, we learned that Bourne was an assassin working for the CIA who was trained to be a lethal killing machine, whether he remembered his past or not. Now is the time for him to learn who he really is and why everyone wants to kill him. The days of amnesia may finally be over.

It’s not over for us.

We forget about the wars and overwhelming debt levels and the hurricanes of the last years, hoping like hell it’s all behind us. We forgot about bubbles of the past as people mortgaged and refinanced and bought and sold houses and condos as the prices continued to escalate. Now, I wonder if Rock Financial, the biggest lender in Michigan and the primary sponsor of the Detroit Pistons, will make it in one piece. Will it suffer the fate of American Home Mortgage?

My wife and I have bought three homes in 22 years and refinanced countless times. We had an adjustable mortgage years ago when our payments were smaller and when it went up a full 2% in a year, we refinanced again and fixed it. We were lucky to refinance two years ago when rates were at an all time low and locked it for 15 years.

So many others are not so fortunate, caught into exploding adjustable mortgages or large fixed loans on expensive homes that are falling in value while their property taxes continue to rise.

Fear is rising. The high levels of the stock market may be over while the war continues with 160,000 American soldiers far from home, fearful that their lives may end with the next IED bombing.

An election is coming next year and a change may be coming. But by then, it may be too late. Like Bourne, we may begin to remember our past but unlike him, we might be much happier, waiting for the unknown to come, lost in the pleasant fog of amnesia.

 

“I would rather be ashes than dust; I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot; I would rather be in a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow than in a sleepy and permanent planet; the proper function of man is to live, not to exist; I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them; I shall USE my time.” Jack London

A History of Mitzvahs

August 30, 2007

 

I am thankful to be a part of three children and their bar and bat mitzvahs, knowing the meaning of ritual, prayer, and tradition, the importance of family, the glory of life.

 

When I was signaled to rise and walk toward the Torah, my legs shook. I kept eyes focused, away from the hundreds of people in suits and dresses to my left. I picked up the silver yad and pointed to the last line on the darkened yellow scroll and began to chant, “Amen, key agohim haeleh,” from the calligraphy of Hebrew without vowels, mostly from memory, after listening to a tape and practicing line by line until it was planted in my mind.

The words of Moses resonated in my throat as I stopped worrying about the moment, of freezing, looking foolish without words, of “messin’ up,” as Marlee calls it. I had taken my place again in history’s cast of Jews reading the old parchment handed down thousands of years ago, read parshat by parshat, line by line, repeated every single year for hundreds of years. I wore the tallis draped over my shoulders that was given me by Marlee’s grandfather, whose name echoes in our third daughter, Marlee Leah, named after her Zadeh Meyer Mitnick.

After I read the same 5th aliyah I read for my oldest daughter, Ilana, and her bat mitzvah six years ago, my son chanted the second part of the fifth aliyah of Shoftim, eleven days before his 21st birthday. Then, my daughter Marlee chanted the sixth and seventh aliyahs and the first part of the haftorah before Cameron Blum, sharing his bar mitzvah with her, rose to recite the second half.

I watched my pediatrician, Cameron’s grandfather, rise to the bimah, surprised he didn’t look much older than I remembered. Dr. Blum was the family pediatrician who took care of my sister, brother, and me, during our childhoods. My wife, Judy, and I got up to say a prayer for our daughter and then we sat, relieved, knowing we didn’t have anything else to do in the service, knowing Marlee was nearly finished praying. She had stood with poise and beauty, her singing melodic, voice resonant, her Hebrew flawless. Our third child, once so small and fragile, was now accepted as a young lady, a woman.

Six years earlier on our 16th anniversary, Ilana stunned us as well, reciting Hebrew as if it were her first language. She chanted on our anniversary the same Parshat Shoftim that her younger sister would chant six years later. She sang with a rich melodic tone and said afterward that she felt relaxed and confident. Marlee was more fearful but shone anyways, seeming just as poised and polished as her sister.

In 1999, Kyle had stood on Mount Masada in Israel and read the first aliyah of the same Parshat Shoftim. Later that year, he read at Adat Shalom on December 5th from the Torah, the beginning prayers of the Shabbat service, half a haftorah, and more.

Now, so much of Kyle’s’ bar mitzvah service and the Sunday brunch buffet at the Excalibur Banquet Center in Southfield seem a blur. Kyle remembers the klezmir band from Ann Arbor we hired that he hated. I remember moments brought back from photos taken on Sunday, since we couldn’t video tape or photograph anything on the Sabbath. I remembered that I hugged Kyle in the candle lighting ceremony after speaking of my brother, Kenny, whom Kyle was named after, and the importance of Kenny’s Bar Mitzvah, the last special occasion before his death.

For Ilana in 2001, two and a half weeks before the attacks on September 11th, we had a Shabbat luncheon after services and hired a magician/comedian, who died sometime in the next two years from cancer. For Marlee, we also had a Saturday luncheon and hired comedian Joel Chasnoff whom we’d seen and enjoyed twice before. His humor focuses on the quirks and foibles of being a modern Jew and his comedy at the luncheon was a big hit. The theme of the day was “Marlee Makes a Difference,” which was displayed on a large sign on the stage.

Since my bar mitzvah on my 13th birthday in 1970, the bar mitzvah world has radically changed. Who would think then that a “typical” bar or bat mitzvah would become a major event and party, costing somewhere between the retail price of an ES300 and LS400 Lexus. And that’s without the lease or five year jumbo loans. The costs of kosher food, dancing and entertainment, decorations, balloons, photography, video, face painting, candle lightings, and montages keep multiplying.

For Marlee, we tried to make it simple and nice and by the time we were done, we hired a “balloon fairy,” a linen lady, a wonderful sign and centerpiece decorator, the same photographer we had for Kyle, the Bat Mitzvah tutor, and the kosher caterer who presented all the delicious “fixins” and deserts. We split the adult luncheon from the kids’ party which was to be held on Labor Day and led by Joe Cornell Dance Studios with their three dancers, strobe lights, and dance accoutrements and give-aways. We hired a face painter and a photographer who uses the computer to prints photos for guests to take home with them. Our goal was to be modest and still we paid a small fortune.

When I was 13, I invited 5 boys and 5 girls to my bar mitzvah luncheon which had few decorations. Like most kids celebrating bat mitzvahs, Marlee invited her friends from her pre-school and Hillel Day School and her current middle school, O. E. Dunckel. The total of kids coming to her dance party is 90.

Despite everything, I don’t take lightly the importance of these mitzvahs and their meaning to children and their parents. It still seems worth the high costs, the years of preparation, the fear and trepidation. We were able to invite and see our aunts and uncles, many from California and other states, who may not share future occasions with us other than funerals. We were able to celebrate with Marlee’s four grandparents, still alive and well. We could focus on a relatively simple time in a child’s life, early in puberty, without the feeling of sadness of sending a child to the uncertain land of college or marriage. Bar and bat mitzvahs are a time to enjoy children and to realize they’re getting older and soon will be off to college and middle age. It’s a time to take stock and be grateful for the gift of family and friends.

I haven’t seen the video of Kenny’s bar mitzvah on January 2nd, 1982 in a few years but I know that this is the one real record left of his face and his voice together, the last time we could see him smiling, laughing, being a boy celebrating his accomplishment, his family and friends. I can remember watching the video tape of a young boy enjoying his childhood. I can still see the pride on our Zadeh’s face as he cut the challah for his last time.

25 years ago, we were naïve. When we watched Kenny read his haftorah at Beth Abraham Hillel Moses, we never realized the profound importance of this moment. It was the last moment of celebration for our family of five. Seven months later, we became a family of four.

25 years later, the framed photo of my brother reading at his bar mitzvah hangs upstairs between Ilana and Marlee’s bedrooms, across from Kyle’s room. Kyle and Ilana are now gone to college and Marlee usually has her room shut, the iTunes music the background to her instant messaging with friends.

I am thankful to be a part of three children and their bar and bat mitzvahs, knowing the meaning of ritual, prayer, and tradition, the importance of family, the glory of life. I am fortunate to be married to a woman who can put her heart and soul into planning and organizing a bat mitzvah so that it delights our daughter, our family, and all of our invited guests.

Our rabbis told Judy and me that our simchah was special and that “we got the real meaning of a bat mitzvah.” The prayers led to the giving of warm fuzzy blankets made by Marlee and Judy, to be donated to Mott Children’s Hospital for children with cancer. And a framed photo puzzle was made with Marlee and the rabbi from the sister synagogue in Israel, whose congregation faced the ketusha rockets from Hamas in Lebanon last year. We wrote the names of our guests on each puzzle piece and we and many of our guests donated to this small conservative congregation in the tiny town of Karmiel, Israel. In recognition of Marlee’s bat mitzvah, the rabbi called to congratulate her and Kehillat Hakerem sent a scrapbook of photos and words signed by many of its members.

Marlee said, she was trying to “make a difference piece by piece.” Kyle had created a charity in high school called “Puzzles for Progress” and his sister was actually able to use his idea to help other kids in Israel for her bat mitzvah project.

A few days later, Judy, Marlee, and I found our way to Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan and brought three bags of colorful blankets to give to young kids suffering with cancer. There, we saw articles and photos of Maddie, the seven-year old girl, whom was written about last year and this year in the Detroit Free Press. Maddie had been treated at Mott and finally died a few months ago.

The articles about a father and his beautiful daughter, suffering with cancer, a girl who touched so many thousands of readers and friends, inspired Marlee to write a poem and send it to Maddie’s father. It was her little mitzvah that she was compelled to do, to write of something that moved her, to show a father in pain that another girl somewhere was connected to Maddie in spirit.

Our children are blessings. It’s to honor the memories of Kenny and Maddie that we must celebrate every bar and bat mitzvah as if they were our children’s last celebrations, their final glory in this life.

I think of Moses chanting for us to not only honor our parents. I can imagine him bellowing out in Hebrew, “be grateful for your children, the little mitzvahs of God!”   

 

Keep Fighting

August 31, 2007

 

Can the words of a boy who died from cancer help a 3-year-old boy fighting for his life?

 

A tornado struck Fenton and Lansing as rain flooded much of Michigan and Ohio. The stock market was plummeting, homes still weren’t selling, and the Detroit Tigers lost to their first place competitor, Cleveland. Depression lingered with the humidity that hung in the warm air outside.

On Friday night, August 24th, the stock market rebounded, the rains finally ended, and the Tigers, after a four hour rain delay, began the first game of the Series against the New York Yankees at 11:05p.m. Carlos Guillen ended it in the 11th inning on a walk-off 3-run home run, to win the game, 9-6. It ended at 3:30 in the morning. The Tigers kept fighting through injuries and losses and never quit, even though they had lost far more games than they won after the All Star break.

I was not interested in staying up late and watching another loss. Instead, I woke early on Saturday morning and saw the score on ESPN on Saturday morning, the morning of my 22nd wedding anniversary.

The day seemed uneventful. 22 years before, Judy and I stood under the chuppah, unable to guess the future. Who could imagine what we or the world would become on August 25, 2007? We celebrated in prayer at the same place of our wedding, Adat Shalom Synagogue, where we’ve been members ever since. When we read the Kaddish, I didn’t realize that Miles Levin would have turned 19 on the same day as our anniversary…if he hadn’t died six days earlier.

On the Carepages.com website, his mother wrote, “Today is Miles’ 19th birthday. I’m writing now because it is the hour of his birth….There are many ways to honor Miles today: an act of kindness, which he felt so strongly was lacking in our world…crying for the unknown soldier/cancer patient; accepting whatever the day brings, which was Miles’ philosophy.”

Miles was diagnosed in June 2005 with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare pediatric cancer of the soft tissue, and began blogging on Carepages.com, under the heading, “Levin Story.”

The next month, Miles compared life to a bucket of golf balls, urging readers to “live every day shooting as if it’s your last shot.”

After Levin was featured on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360,” the hits on his web site mushroomed. In June at his graduation from Cranbrook, he addressed all the students and teachers, expressing hope that he inspired goodness in others. Shirts were sold at the graduation ceremony with his message, “Keep Fighting. Stop Struggling.”

I’ve been reading two years of his blogs as well as blogs from his mother, father, and sister. On June 4th, 2006, when his cancer seemed to be subsiding, Miles wrote, “It takes the darkest bleakest of human tribulations to bring out the best in us. It is in the face of hopelessness more than any other time that we rally around what is really important.”

On the same http://www.carepages.com website, two days before my anniversary and Miles’ birthday, the mother of Noah Biorkman wrote about her son whom had been labeled terminal, predicted to soon die, “I have been waiting anxiously for the results (of the bone marrow test.) Today I finally got the nerve to go and find out what the results were….I put Scott on speaker phone. He has CLEAR bone marrow. (No cancer cells present.) Neither Scott nor I knew how to react. We have received such bad news till now, that we just didn’t know.

“At 4:30 today, I received a phone call from Dr. Yanik. He said that Noah is in complete remission! Yes, you read it right—REMISSION!!!!! All of the scars were clear. There were not visible cancer cells in his scans…. Remission is one word that we didn’t we would ever hear. Dr. Yanik said that Noah is amazing! We completely agree!!”

In the face of hopelessness burst an amazing spark of good news, one that shook all of those, including me, who had given up, like the doctors at Children’s Hospital in Detroit. But Noah’s parents, Scott and Diana, didn’t give up on their little bald boy whom had just turned 3 on July 8th. They went to Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan and put their faith in Dr. Yanik, the doctor who would keep fighting for the life of a little boy.

Noah came to work yesterday to visit and pounced around the second floor, a blur of energy. He put a silver key in his pocket and I looked at what I had that I could give him. All I had were clear rocks with the words “love” and “gratitude” on them. He loved playing with anything he could get his hand on. Diana shook her head, tired from chasing him but content to see him so full of life. She told me the next 6-10 weeks were going to be “total hell”, with the most intense chemo that any little boy could face, to make sure that every speck of cancer tumors would be ripped away from Noah. She said he’d be mostly in bed, exhausted, with mouth sores so painful that he will not be able to eat. I looked at this little boy and thought of Miles’ words, “Keep fighting!”

On the latest Carepages entry (August 30, 2007) of “Levin story,” Miles’ mom, Nancy, doesn’t give up, even with her dear boy ripped away from her. She writes, “Mom here. We are in a process of exploring and evaluating how Miles’ legacy should translate into the world, including the destiny of his site on Carepages.

“This may be difficult to believe, but I have soft-pedaled the horrors of pediatric cancer. To broaden your understanding of the extensiveness and the brutality of the treatment, I am listing all the medications that Miles ingested, through various orifices, including a mediport (which was placed at diagnosis, removed at (so called) remission and surgically replaced on the other side of his chest at relapse.) The number of medications is staggering. The possible interactions overwhelming. And the fact that they didn’t work: stunning.”

She then lists 15 cancer killing agents, 10 anti-nausea medications, and 25 other drugs, and admits feeling “nauseated composing this list.”

I can’t help thinking of Noah and his next battle through what Nancy calls “chemo land” and can only think of Miles and his constant will to keep going, to never give up. I told Diana that my wife, daughter, and I were at Mott Children’s Hospital on Monday to drop off colorful blankets made by Judy and Marlee to give kids facing chemo some warmth and protection.

I hope that one of these beautiful blankets will touch Noah and help him feel a little warmer, a little more comfortable. I pray that the words of one boy on Carepages will impact another whose little body doesn’t understand any of this. I wish for two mothers and two fathers to continue to persevere through the days of agony and the face of hopelessness.

Keep fighting, keep fighting.

The Best of Miles

September 2, 2007

 

“I’ll try and explain why this is the best thing that could happen to me. There is only one path to greatness and it runs through hell….If I had to pick one thing I would hope to accomplish in this life, it would be to show people how to rekindle the human fire from cinder and fading embers until the flames burn so bright that it hurts to look.” Miles Levin, http://www.carepages.com

 

Why have I been so drawn to the words of a boy cut down by cancer? Like others, I read about him and saw him on TV, on the local newspapers, in an obituary in the Detroit Jewish News. But it wasn’t till I read every blog he wrote on Carepages.com that I became drawn to his story and mesmerized by his words. Maybe it is that my wife gave birth to our three children at Beaumont Hospital, where doctors valiantly tried to save Miles’ life. Maybe it’s because I have a daughter the same age as Miles beginning college and a boy two years and 4 days older. Perhaps it’s the legacy of my brother, Kenny, who was taken away from life in a car accident 25 years ago and the pain of losing a brother. Perhaps it was watching the turmoil of my parents bearing the loss of a child for a quarter century that brought Miles so close to my heart. I have read every blog of Miles and his family from the day of my anniversary and Miles’ death, August 25th, back to the beginning when he welcomed readers to his Carepages. Then, I read them all in reverse order, chronologically from the first days when he realized that he had a rare form of pediatric cancer. As I read them, I realized that what Miles was sharing with me and all of us was his soul, his loving, brilliant, kind, funny, hopeful, and courageous soul.

 

I have been struck by Miles’ words as well as the deeply loving words of his mother, father, and sister. This is the story of an astonishing boy who became a wise man and the family that held him in a sea of support during the last painful years of his life. This is a story that must be told again and again. And so I wish to highlight just a few of Miles’ words, sentences, and inspirational thoughts. For so many more of his words and thoughts, go to www.carepages.com and look up “Levin Story.”  But here is an abbreviated edition of some of his most poignant and beautiful words, which I call “The Best of Miles”:

 

July 7, 2005

I went to the driving range the other day and I was thinking…how you start out with a big bucket full of golf balls, and you just start hitting away carelessly. You have dozens of them, each individual ball means nothing so you just hit, hit, hit. One ball gone is practically inconsequential when subtracted from your bottomless bucket. There are no practice swings or techniques reevaluations after a bad shot, because so many more tries remain. Yet eventually you start to have to reach down towards the bottom of the bucket to scavenge for another shot and you realize that tries are running out. Now with just a handful left, each swing becomes more meaningful. The right technique becomes more crucial, so between each shot you take a couple practice swings and a few deep breaths. There is a very strong need to end on a good note, even if every proceeding shot was horrible, getting it right at the end means a lot. You know as you tee up your last ball, “This is my final shot. I want to crush this with perfection; I must make this count.” Limited quantities or limited time brings a new, precious value and significance to anything you do. Live every day shooting as if it’s your last shot, I know I have to.

I found out today 5 year survival rates are just 20%.

 

November 28, 2005

The other day I was just sitting alone in my hospital room, looking out the window and starting to feel sorry for myself. But what I remembered is that there couldn’t be a better candidate to have cancer than me. My body is young; we have insurance to enable me to get lifesaving treatment, which some people do not have; we have money beyond what insurance covers, to seek out the opinions of experts like Dr. Nachman, which not everyone can afford to do; I have a mom who has dedicated herself to finding out everything she can and a dad capable of making hard decisions in times of crisis; and I have a helpful sister, supportive friends and an accommodating school.

For having it bad, I have it pretty good.

 

April 18, 2006

So while in many respects this has been the worst year of my life, I don’t think I can say I’ve ever been more alive. Sublime ups, staggering downs. Now that’s living.

 

June 4, 2006

June 4th, 2005 was the day I was diagnosed with cancer.

Here I am on June 4th, 2006, with no evidence of disease. In a wildly ironic alignment of the stars, today is National Cancer Survivor’s Recognition Day….

There is a feeling that even if I die, I’ve already made my time here count for something. That in some way or another, I’ve meant something to a lot of people, and changed them, if only a little. Getting a chance to live in my life, as well as indirectly in all of the Carepage readers and countless others, knowingly and unknowingly, across the world, has made it all worthwhile.

Nobody knows for sure what we’re doing here, or how to gauge our successfulness, but I tend to think that if you leave the world a better place than when you got here, as much as was personally possible, you’re doing pretty good.

Taking that as the quantification of success, you then realized that your biological vitality means very little—having a beating heart and operational lungs does not define you, your effect on the world around you does. Once you fulfill that service, your shift is done; you’re off work and it’s time to go home. So you don’t necessarily need a lot of years to have a lot of effect. In fact, maybe the opposite: if the good die young, it is they who have the most profound effect of all. If you can truly embrace this—and I’m still trying—that’s sainthood.

It takes the darkest, bleakest of human tribulations to bring out the best in us. It is in the face of hopelessness more than any other time that we unite and rally around what is really important. If I have to be a martyr for that to happen, then I will do my best to try and accept that.

What is real cannot be touched.

 

October 17, 2006

If all is naught but random atoms in the void, then that would explain a lot, like Darfur and why I wound up with alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma; but if there be a purpose, then this is my hour. I have tried my best to show what it is to persevere, and what it means to be strong.

 

December 9, 2006

Maximize each day. And if the cancer cells are already multiplying once more, this is double pertinent. I often come back to the thought: I am living incomparably more richly than I ever was before cancer, so if I die, will it have been worth it just to get these couple years of superliving?…That is to say, would it be better to have lived as a sun, which, at an early stage, supernova-d fleetingly, giving everyone in his life a lesson in rolling with the punches before fading, or to be an ordinary start amongst billions in the galaxy?

 

March 10, 2007

If I am no more than a 25 trillion cell organism who unfortunately got the short end of the stick, I have still thoroughly enjoyed the time I’ve been given. We’re not entitled to one breath of air, yet here we find ourselves alive anyway. You didn’t do anything to earn it, so whatever you get is bonus….

And I’m sorry, cancer, but I refuse to stop enjoying life.

 

March 11, 2007

There is so much in this world that I do not understand.

I was in the security line at the airport with my mom this morning. We looked over, and there was Bob Woodruff, the ABC anchor who had been injured in Iraq….Not only is he a Cranbrook graduate, but he is slated to be our commencement speaker in June. We introduced ourselves to him. He responded compassionately to the nature of my trip, giving me his business card. I told him I was running for student speaker at graduation, that we’d make quite a duo. We went through the middle detectors and separated….We met up again at the (Newark) gate. We talked to him and his wife, Lee, for about an hour….Mr. Woodruff started to cry at one point and kissed my mom on the hand.

It was an amazing meeting. Our fates seemed intertwined…that I should meet this journalist/tough-it-out extraordinaire who graduated from Cranbrook and we might be co-speakers in June….And I felt in a way I have no memory of feeling before, the presence of angels in Gate A67. I don’t mean Mr. and Mrs. Woodruff, but a guardian presence I could not see. It’s a pretty good way to start this trip.

 

March 16, 2007

Why didn’t I call it a day two years ago and save myself endless vomiting and suffering? Because the only way to know if she will go to Prom with you is to ask her out. Our power is not infinite, and there are times when we will fall short despite all efforts, but the only way to find out is to find out. I have no regrets.

I tend to believe that there is a God. Maybe not a guy with a white beard, but I think I feel the presence of some divine form—I think I feel your prayers—though like the Tao, God could be formless. I have come to believe that God put me on earth to get Stage IV alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma. Why? So that I could show the world how to have Stage IV alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma—or rather how to handle what is close to the worst thing that could possibly happen to me with as much strength and grace as I could manage. I promise to continue to be the best model I can.

 

March 19, 2007

I’ll try and explain why this is the best thing that could happen to me. There is only one path to greatness and it runs through hell….If I had to pick one thing I would hope to accomplish in this life, it would be to show people how to rekindle the human fire from cinder and fading embers until the flames burn so bright that it hurts to look.

 

April 17, 2007

I so badly want to live. I have great enthusiasm for life; that probably shows. This is the first Carepages update I’ve ever written through tears. I just want to live. NPR Columnist and cancer patient Leroy Sievers says it for me best: “I’m not scared to die, I’m just not ready.”

The truncation is so harsh. That’s what hurts the most. There’s so much more I want to do. And I know I have more to give.

 

April 30, 2007

It was both strange and wonderful to be back at school. On the last day I was there before I left for New York, I was silently skeptical that I’d ever see my friends again. As my condition worsened in New York, I became more and more sure that that day had been goodbye. Yet there I was once again; against all odds, walking to class, seeing friends, eating lunch, being a teenager.

 

May 7, 2007

As I was sitting outside on a bench (for the first time in a week) while my mom got the car from the hospital parking lot, something special happened. Suddenly, the world (picturesque Beaumont Hospital) became more beautiful than I could ever recall seeing it. There’s a certain time at dusk when the sun sometimes sets everything aglow in a most angelic, hyper-real way. Think of the perfect sunset wedding lighting. The splendor of world was overwhelming. As we drove up Woodward, which isn’t lined by much more than strip malls, its beauty nearly moved me to tears. I can’t remember when being alive ever felt so good, and everything around me—the trees, the people in their cars—they were so vibrant with life as well.

 

May 27, 2007

My best teacher in the transitory nature of the universe is chemotherapy. Last I wrote, I had one more weekend before chemo. The weekend came, the weekend went, treatment week came, and now it’s over once more. No matter how many rounds I do, at the outset of each new round, I am bound to a tinged feeling that the week will somehow span out to infinity, never to end.

But it always passes. Such high contrast living between nausea and liberation drives home this impermanence. Once again, I don’t have to deal with chemotherapy for two weeks. Scientists predict that our Sun, having expended its energy in about 5 billion years, will swell into a Red Giant, engulfing planets all the way out to Mars. Remote as it seems, that day will one day be as real as tomorrow.

 

June 26, 2007

I have some unfortunate news. It appears that my chemotherapy is no longer effective in containing my cancer….My mom told me today that I don’t need to go ahead with any more treatments if I don’t want to. I want to. Mainly because life is the most breathtakingly amazing thing I could ever imagine. If I can get more of it, even just a couple more days or weeks or months, I’ll fight pretty hard for that….

I will fight to the bitter end. However, we must stop struggling….Keep fighting; stop struggling. Because as long as we are feeling at least physically and mentally decent, we will never want to leave. There will always be things we’ll wish we could do or could have done differently. One day written on the calendar in invisible ink, you will die. When that future date becomes today, I guarantee you’ll wonder how the hell that happened. But once you accept it as part of the territory, it doesn’t sting quite as bad.

I feel relatively ready. I’m proud of myself, proud of my life, and most proud of the story of my life. I say the story because it includes everybody in it and all the goodness that has transpired, the courage displayed by my family, the generosity of people like Bob Woodruff to have reached into my life—a busy and important man finding the time to call me from Syria during my chemo week. I am proud of the people my friends have become. They’ve grown so tall. I am most proud of myself (to answer the question) for my seeming ability to bring the best in those around me wherever I may go. What I’ve done, I believe, is what I’ve been sent here to do.

Something has shifted inside me. Everything is okay now. It’s okay because I am okay with it. The growth that my having and dying from cancer creates in the lives of so many thousands of people overshadows and outweighs most personal grief. I’m in escalating pain from the tumors but I hardly mind. You know why?

This is my story and it’s not meant to be told any other way.

All good things must end….Whatever it is, it’s going to end, and when it does, if you can say, “I enjoyed that,” that’s as much as you can be given, so let that be enough.

Miles Levin died on August 19, 2007. His mother, Nancy, wrote on the day of his death, “Talk about destiny, G-d’s plan, purpose, anything you want, but the fact is that our boy, our beloved son and brother, was snatched from us, and it hurts. We knew it was coming, yet we’re shocked. We knew it was coming, yet we’re unprepared. We knew it was coming, yet it feels unreal. We knew it was coming, but we hate it.”

On Miles’ birthday, August 25, 2007, Nancy wrote, “For whatever reasons, Miles was lifted from the crowd and his story went public. He put rhabdomyosarcoma on the map. Not for one moment do I forget that he was and is a spokesperson for the others. In his acceptance speech for the Sarcoma Foundation Miles likened cancer families to an army. Too many soldiers are taken from our army every single day, he said….

My heart breaks as I see other families standing helplessly by while their children face unknown futures, known futures, suffering, and death. I can’t forget all of this—even on Miles’ birthday. My gift to him, today and every day, is to remember. This is what the survivors of the holocaust say, and now I understand it, too well.”

To the many readers of his Carepages and certainly in this one, I can testify that Miles and his words will never be forgotten.

 

Takhalasu

September 10, 2007

 

So as more American soldiers and more Iraqi people become takhalasu, we Americans go on, hopeful that the economy is okay, that our football teams will start winning, that we’ll have a sweet and happy New Year, and that one day this war will be over. We don’t know how but we know we will have a new president next year and we will put our faith in him or her to act heroic, to simply tell us the truth, and do the right thing. But until then, we have soldiers like Jake Schick who are the real heroes, simply Americans who are noble and thankful and giving, expecting nothing in return.

 

I cannot see “No End in Sight,” not here in Michigan in September, 2007. No theatres in any neighborhood are playing this highly recommended film, choosing to show popular box-office leading movies like the new, revised “Halloween,” “Superbad,” and “Balls of Fury.” It’s assumed that the average American would prefer to forget Iraq, to stay far away from a documentary that educates us about the path to the Iraq war, the mistakes made there, and why there is still little hope for any resolution.

Roger Ebert wrote, “Remember the scene in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ where Alex has his eyes clamped open and is forced to watch a movie? I imagine a similar experience for the architects of our catastrophe in Iraq. I would like them to see ‘No End in Sight,” the story of how we were led into that war, and more than 3,000 American lives and hundreds of thousands of other lives were destroyed.”

We could say the same for the rest of us, who could use our eyes clamped open, just after four U.S. Marines were killed fighting in Anbar province and three soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in Northern Iraq, raising the number of dead U.S. soldiers to at least 3,760. Takhalasu.

I am waiting till the day before Halloween when the DVD will be available to order. I am waiting to see what Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune calls “the best and saddest film of the year so far.” “Over and over,” he says, “we hear the voices of the people who knew more, and better, than their armchair-warrior superiors about what went wrong in the planning and prosecution of the Iraq regime change. The film is hardly even political; it’s more about how not to run a business, and how any company, any administration, neglects the expertise of its employees at its own peril.”

Unlike companies like Home Depot or Hewlett Packard that fired its CEOs, the country is stuck with its current board of directors for another 16 months. We are stuck with a president who says we are “kicking ass” in Iraq and compares this war to Vietnam and Cambodia, not in irony, but as a lesson that we must stay there so that sadists like Pol Pot don’t emerge. Meanwhile, we are here, waiting to see the next video of Osama Bin Laden, who is coming out to greet us with his first message in nearly three years, in time for the sixth anniversary of September 11th, 2001.

Bin Laden looks younger and healthier in his new video. The perpetrator of the worse carnage in American history is free to scorn America while we get to prepare to hear how the surge in the beginning of the New Year has reduced violence in Iraq. But is this possible reduction real as the new statistics don’t include the murders of Sunni vs. Sunni, Shiite vs. Shiite? And much of the “good news” is a consequence of bad news: people in neighborhoods have been “takhalasu,” an Iraqi word that stands for “purged,” meaning killed or driven away.  

The Jewish New Year begins this week and I am getting ready to be judged by God, to atone for anger, cruelty, and lying, to be purged from sin. But I as well as many other Michigan Jews are stuck in anger about war and more. Many are angry that Volkswagen is pulling their North American headquarters from Michigan and mad at Lloyd Carr, the Michigan football coach. So many Michigan fans are angry that he has led his highly rated football team to four losses in a row after Bo Schembechler died last November. First, he lost to dreaded rival Ohio State, then in the Rose Bowl to the USC Trojans, and now, to start the year, the 5th ranked Wolverines stunningly lost to the unknown Appalachian State team from Division IAA and then got trounced by unranked Oregon, 39-7.

With angry calls for his resignation, Lloyd Carr stood up and told reporters what he would say to Peter, a friend of his granddaughter who asked her about her grandfather. “I’m doing great. I’ve got great kids here. And you don’t know me…there is nothing; there is nothing that can keep me down. Not a loss to Appalachian State, not a loss to Oregon. Not a hundred losses. And not the loss of my job….Peter, what I would say to you is this: You’re probably going to lose a lot of games the next few years. And my advice to you is when you lose, don’t make excuses, don’t blame your coaches or teammates or the officials. Just play every day as hard as you can. And regardless of what the outcome of those games are, you keep your head high. Because if you’re doing everything you can to the best of your ability, you have nothing—nothing—to be embarrassed about.”

I don’t know if you can call a football coach who has lost four games in a row a hero but he has taught one of the few good lessons before the New Year. I at least admire Carr for his ability to stand up in the midst of fury and anger and be so humble and honest.

When did we last see a person of honor address us with such a simple honest lesson? What leaders can we hope will bring honor and decency to the American stage? One of our heroes, Senator Chuck Hagel, has just announced he not only won’t run for President but that he will retire after his term in 2009. So what are we left with, Bush, Cheney, Hillary Clinton? We are left with dreams that someone will come and save us.

 I am left with fantasies that won’t come true. I am left with the dream of George W. Bush getting up in front of the nation and being a leader like Lloyd Carr, as he was for a short time after September 11th, 2001 and saying with power and passion, “My fellow Americans, I come to you with my hand in my heart, asking for forgiveness. I am not Jewish but in this time of atonement, I am coming to you and God and admitting I messed up. I truly believed after September 11th that we must attack the forces of evil in the Middle East, not just Bin Laden, but the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. We drove out the Taliban and destroyed Hussein but Bin Laden survived and we took our eyes off him and got lost in Iraq. I truly believed that we could end the tyranny and bloodshed and bring freedom and democracy to Iraq and that it would spread to the rest of the long-suffering people there.

“I felt called by God to help but I was arrogant and I was wrong. I thought it would be easy and that the call of freedom would bring people together. But this war has turned out so much worse than I or any of my advisors thought. We have tried to not make excuses, to not blame the government there, to keep our heads high. But I must be honest now and admit that this has been a no-win war and we have to move on. We must bring our soldiers back slowly to allow the Iraqi people some time to try to build a nation. But we must begin to leave now and admit that we fought a valiant fight. Our soldiers were incredibly brave and noble but we must end this long war. We must bring our soldiers home.”

But this is just a dream in a world without heroic leaders. Instead, we get General Petraeus who comes to Congress to report on the surge and help us decide: troop cuts or no troop cuts. We read that he may recommend the decision to reduce the main body of American troops in Iraq be put off for six months. This is hard to accept, after watching HBO’s “Alive Day Memories,” an hour-long photo essay about ten soldiers who survived Iraq after suffering severe injuries.  We see one soldier who lost one leg, another two legs, two who’ve had traumatic brain injuries, one who lost an arm and shoulder, another who lost both eyes and his frontal cranium. We can’t keep our eyes off a soldier who lost his left hand and both legs, one who has severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and one who lost her right and left legs below the knees. Yet, all of them are thankful they are alive and all are brutally honest about the tremendous challenges they and their families face.

Jake Schick, who was injured on September 20th, 2004, lost his right leg below his knee. Every bone in his left leg and foot were broken. One third of his left hand and arm were blown away. He lost his smallest finger and the use of his ring finger on his hand. The wound was so large that he had to have his left arm placed into his stomach for approximately four weeks to grow a graft. He does not have an ulna in that arm. And here’s what he says, “Needless to say my life has changed dramatically since sustaining multiple injuries in combat operations in Iraq. Although this is the hard, day to day reality of my personal situation, I would not hesitate to go back and fight for your great nation tomorrow. I say this because every Marine and Soldier I know would do the same for me, my family and you and yours. I look at myself as one of the Blessed ones because although coming home almost completely broken, I came home. I am alive. I won. I can’t even imagine my family and friends going to a grave site to honor me or feel close to me and I pray every day for those people who have to do just that. God bless you all!!”

So as more American soldiers and more Iraqi people become takhalasu, we Americans go on, hopeful that the economy is okay, that our football teams will start winning, that we’ll have a sweet and happy New Year, and that one day this war will be over. We don’t know how but we know we will have a new president next year and we will put our faith in him or her to act heroic, to simply tell us the truth, and do the right thing. But until then, we have soldiers like Jake Schick who are the real heroes, simply Americans who are noble and thankful and giving, expecting nothing in return.

No matter what our leaders do or say, we ourselves can follow Jake Schick and Lloyd Carr and live every day as well as we can; regardless of the outcomes of our lives, we can hold our heads high. Like Jake or Lloyd, if we do everything to the best of our abilities, if we live as well as we are capable, we will have nothing…nothing to be embarrassed about.

 

Pray for Less Pain and More Peace

September 18, 2007

 

This week, I pray for Jeremy to recuperate, for the families of Mora and Gray, for the soul of America. I pray for a good year for my family and for a few good words that may have some lasting affect on this world.

 

In this week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it’s time to be thankful just to be alive, to have a little peace and some good health. Others are less fortunate.

Noah Biorkman’s parents are in the midst of the cancer war, the daily battles of being hopeful one day and then racked with fear the next. This morning, Diana wrote, “Yesterday, Noah started going downhill in a hurry. He slept for 26 out of 29 hours. Then he started complaining about his stomach hurting…The mouth sores are here as well as sores throughout the rest of his intestinal tract. In other words, he is in extreme pain right now…This morning he was given morphine, Tylenol, Phenergan (anti-nausea med), three antibiotics, medicine for gall bladder, one for liver, one for kidneys, IV nutrition, Benadryl, and Zofran (anti-nausea med). I can’t even keep track…His immune system is at its lowest point right now. I only hope that he sleeps through most of this. It is very difficult seeing the look of extreme pain on his face.”

At the same time, thousands of families await word from their sons and brothers in the front lines in Iraq, hoping to see them again.

I am preparing for Yom Kippur without such turmoil. I try instead to relive what I don’t want to relive. I am looking back on everything I didn’t like of myself in the last year, the times I was lazy, stubborn, frustrated, cold, callous, when I kept to myself instead of turning outward, when I became a slave to desire and ate without thinking.  I look back to moments of wanton cruelty, when I thought too much about myself and not enough of others. I remember the moments spent making money, immune to others, not going out of my way to say something nice.

Off and on, I’ve been writing my next book, “Little Mitzvahs,” but then I ask myself: what mitzvahs have I done? As Rabbi Nevins said in synagogue on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, when he came back to his old shul, Jews seem to pick from a menu of mitzvahs, choosing them when they “feel right” or are convenient, when they’re easy to do. I admire Orthodox Jews for going overboard in doing every mitzvah they feel that God has commanded. But I like freedom and choices rather than doing what’s required because I’m “supposed to.”  

Facing up to my last year, I ask, what should I have done and what should I do now? I can simply admire the Levin family for having the courage to not only face the death of their son and brother, Miles, but being able to write about their experiences eloquently and honestly. On September 11th, on a day so many Americans relived with horror and sorrow, Nancy Levin wrote about words of comfort given her after her son died from cancer. “…NO words, no matter what they are, regardless of the most heartfelt intention behind them, can come close to touch what Sarah Ban Breathnach calls, ‘as a parent…the wounding we fear most’…Words can be said in a few seconds or even minutes and then the speaker is on to his or her life, while the bereaved is still left with this overpowering, never-ending reality…”

Words were the tools that seven active-duty U.S. soldiers had when they courageously wrote a controversial Op-Ed in the New York Times. They wrote, “To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency is far-fetched. As responsible infantrymen and noncommissioned officers with the 82nd Airborne Division soon heading back home, we are skeptical of recent press coverage portraying the conflict as increasingly manageable and feel it has neglected the mounting civil, political and social unrest we see every day.”

The authors of the article were Army specialist Buddhika Jayamaha, Sergeant Jeremy Roebuck, Sergeant Omar Mora, Sergeant Edward Sandmeier, Staff Sergeant Yance T. Gray, and Staff Sergeant Jeremy A. Murphy. They observed that, “Two million Iraqis are in refugee camps in bordering countries. Close to two million more are internally displaced and now fill many urban slums. Cities lack regular electricity, telephone services and sanitation. ‘Lucky’ Iraqis live in gated communities barricaded with concrete blast walls that provide them with a sense of communal claustrophobia rather any sense of security we would consider normal.”

Last Monday, Sgt. Omar Mora and Sgt. Yance Grey died in a vehicle accident in western Baghdad. The news arrived as General Petraeus gave his testimony about our “progress” in Iraq. Senator Chuck Hagel asked Petraeus, “Are we going to dismiss those seven NCOs (the authors of the NY Times op-ed?) Are they ignorant? They laid out a pretty different scenario, General, Ambassador, from what you’re laying out today.”

President Bush in a speech to the nation said that troops would be in Iraq indefinitely after he leaves office. “The sad thing for the American people,” Tom Friedman wrote on Sunday, “is that we have no commander in chief anymore, framing our real situation and options. The president’s description on Thursday for the stakes in Iraq was delusional. An Iraqi ally fighting for ‘freedom’ against ‘extremists’?

“We also do not have a commander in chief anymore weighing the costs of staying in Iraq indefinitely against America’s other interests at home and abroad. When General Petraeus honestly averred that he could not say whether pursuing the surge in Iraq would make America safer, he underscored how much the war there has become disconnected from every conceivable worthy goal—democratization of Iraq or spreading progressive governance in the Arab-Muslim world—and is now just about itself and abstractions of ‘winning’ or ‘not failing.’”

President Bush seems incapable of atonement, incapable of admitting wrongdoings and mistakes. On Yom Kippur, we Jews need to look deeper at the sorrows of others and what we can do to help. We are brothers to our soldiers in Iraq, even if we seem so far, far away.

Frank Rich wrote, “Our situation is graver than it was during Vietnam…Mr. Bush, confident that he got away with repackaging the same bankrupt policies with a nonsensical new slogan (‘Return on Success’) Thursday night, is counting on the public’s continued apathy as he kicks the can down the road and bides his time until January 20th, 2009; he, after all, has nothing more to lose. The job for real leaders is to wake up America to the urgent reality. We can’t afford to punt until Inauguration Day in a war that each day drains America of resources and will. Our national security can’t be held hostage indefinitely to a president’s narcissistic need to compound his errors rather than admit them.”

It is time to review our errors on this Yom Kippur that led to the deaths of two sergeants. How could we have allowed our president and elected leaders to bring us to such a quagmire and keep us there for an endless number of years? We sit back while soldiers who are supposed to follow orders have the courage to write to us about what’s going wrong. Sgt. Mora, who was on his second tour of duty and was supposed to be coming home for Thanksgiving, told his stepfather that the situation in Iraq was “desperate.”

Now, Mora has left a hole in the life of his wife, Christa, and 5-year-old daughter, Jordan. And Sgt. Grey has disappeared, leaving his wife, Jessica, and infant daughter, Ava, home alone without him. And another of the other five authors, Staff Sgt. Jeremy Murphy, was shot in the head while the article was being written, hopefully to recover and then become one of 28,000 injured American soldiers, left to survive at home.

This week, I pray for Jeremy to recuperate, for the families of Mora and Gray, for the soul of America. I pray for a good year for my family and for a few good words that may have some lasting affect on this world.

I want to be optimistic that in this time of Ramadan and Yom Kippur, some people who distrust and dislike each other can come together to pray. Shahed Amanullah, an award-winning Muslim journalist, wrote of hope in his blog, “This Ramadan happily coincides with the start of the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah, which I feel is particularly serendipitous because of the similarity of both holidays.” He continued, “Both have a focus on seeking forgiveness and spiritual renewal, and both feature an extended period of soul-searching. And for one day, on Yom Kippur, both Jews and Muslims will be fasting until the sun sets.

“I hope both faith communities take this opportunity to share at least part of this time celebrating under one roof. After all, this opportunity only comes around every 33 years. Two years ago, during my last year in graduate school at Georgetown, I organized a joint Rosh Hashanah-Ramadan celebration for our fellow students, who enjoyed baklava, apples and honey, stuffed dates, challah, Turkish delight, and Indo-Pakistani sweets in between classes. It went over well and help bond our communities together.”

If anything can bring people together, it’s eating. We might not get Bush or Bin Laden to acknowledge anything but warfare but if we each take a day to fast and pray and then share some baklava and challah, we might have a good year after all.

If anything else can repair the world, it is faith and kindness. After Diana Biorkman had to bear the pain of her little boy, Noah, all weekend, she thought still about the hurt of others and wrote these words on her blog in Carepages.com, “Please pray for Natalie Salazaar. She has stage 4 neuroblastoma like Noah. She has been through all of the treatments without any success. They are keeping her comfortable right now. Her family has been in and out as much as possible. Please pray for less pain and more peace for little Natalie. She is 14.”

Let us all pray for less pain and more peace for Natalie, Noah, for the Levin, Mora, Grey, and Murphy families. On this Yom Kippur and Ramadan, let us pray for less pain and more peace for every living being in this world.   

 

Unspeakable

October 16, 2007

 

“Hope. That’s what our children carry. They are OUR hope for the future. We invest in them. We care for them. We feed them. We believe in them. We love them. All the while, hoping and planning on an adult to emerge from our efforts, ready to leave the nest and begin their own life.” Nancy Levin

 

The Kenny Goldman Basketball League began its 24th year on October 14, 2007. The league has nearly run itself for the last decade with guidance from Bruce Wineman of the Jewish Community Center who is the league’s director. My parents and I check in periodically and donate but we don’t have to worry much about the legacy the league carries. My brother’s name has become imbedded in the Jewish Center and its gymnasium.

The passage of time makes unspeakable loss bearable. On the same day as the start of the league, Miles Levin’s mom, Nancy, wrote on CarePages.com of the loss of her son and its everyday markers:

 

This one is going to be challenging to put words to, but that seems to be my strength. I’ve had this feeling (actually, in grief, “feeling” doesn’t fully capture it, sensation, wave, something) many times in recent weeks. When I feel something many times, when something persists, I tend to believe it has truth in it; and if it has truth in it for me, it probably has truth in it for others struggling to cope with this (un)reality. I’m beginning to define my own mission as that: putting words to the unspeakable.

Periodically, I venture into Miles’ room. The object that destabilized me last time was a very small desk – miniature – that I had purchased for Miles when he was about three or four. I had seen it at an antique show. It’s made of wood, kind of cherry in color, has a small swivel chair with slats at the back; there’s a ridge for pencils on the top, and a board that pulls out – just above the two small drawers on the right side – for writing. The desk never really worked well for him because he was left-handed and the desk is designed for the assumed right-handed child. He had planned on giving it to his child.

I opened one of the drawers and discovered his collection of balls – all sizes, materials, and times in his life. The other drawer held his collection of colored pencils, the mainstay of his Waldorf education. I felt awash with sadness, fond memories, and a weak smile. That’s when I realized this: When we lose a child, we don’t lose (in Miles’ case) only an 18 year old, I lost my 16 year old who just got his license; I lost my 13 year old who is disciplining himself for his Bar Mitzvah; I lost my 10 year old who was so spacey I wondered if he’d make it in this world; I lost my 5 year old who used that little desk; I lost my 2 year old who tripped on a bucket and put a permanent scar on his nose; and I lost my baby who was completely reliant on us for food and care. I lost many children. I realized, when I walked out of his room, that his childhood is in that room. That’s a lot to say good-by to.

I thought that was a lot to grieve until I also realized that although there was no evidence of his future in that room, I felt the loss of what could have been. In another one of my forays into this territory, I discovered all the materials related to Miles’ college pursuit: application essay, SAT scores, books of course listings from various colleges, and his acceptance letters. I had a strange sensation when I read the letters: did “life” know then that he would never go? Did Miles know then that he would never go? Was it a tease? Or, was it life’s way of keeping hope alive.

Hope. That’s what our children carry. They are OUR hope for the future. We invest in them. We care for them. We feed them. We believe in them. We love them. All the while, hoping and planning on an adult to emerge from our efforts, ready to leave the nest and begin their own life. Hope dies when our child dies; we’re left with memory. But, it is not pure memory, it’s filled with, what could have been, unrealized potential. The now vacuum has elements of purposelessness in it since our job has been terminated.

Living in the moment seems to be the watchword of New Age thinking. That’s a tough order for bereaved parents because the feelings in the moment are a jumble of memory, impossible future, and confusing pain. Why would a bereaved parent WANT to live in the present: it hurts. Mentally, we escape to the past because that’s where our child lives. The present reveals the truth that our child no longer lives, in the physical world. It is an enormous shift in consciousness to create a relationship in the present with someone who doesn’t have a body. Yet, this is what we must do. Or die – if only spiritually – ourselves. This is the task, this is the requirement, this is our growth edge. I’ve not yet figured out how to do it, but I’ll be sure to let you know if and when I do.

 

I cannot write as beautifully about “unspeakable” loss as Nancy Levin does. Her words are a testament not only to Miles but to all parents of children who die. I can’t think of a better way to honor my parents and their son on the anniversary of a basketball league for kids, named in my brother’s memory. Nancy says that we must “create a relationship in the present with someone who doesn’t have a body.” For us, the league allows us a little bit of time to ponder that tenuous spiritual relationship.

Let it go at that.

 

“I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you will be really happy are those who have sought and have found how to serve.”

Albert Schweitzer, 1875-1965, Missionary, Theologian, Philosopher

 

Black Ghost

October 31, 2007

 

The ghosts of memory are rarely accurate, especially when cobbling together the remembrance of first jobs, first dates and heartbreaks.

 

The Summer of ’75 was the first time I got a real job. I had the post-Watergate-rising-inflation-summer-after-graduation blues, wondering how my transition to college would be and what I could do for money. Thankfully, my friend, Rob, who was also going to Wayne State University, a college in the heart of Detroit, offered me a summer job opportunity. I could work with him at his cousin’s factory from June till the week after Labor Day, right before college was to begin. Working with my friend’s cousin was one step up from working with my dad, which I’d already done. So I accepted Rob’s offer and our summer at Canvas Products officially began.

Canvas Products was a small factory that made tarpaulins and other things from canvas and delivered them to the largest retailers in the world, Sears, Montgomery Ward, and the largest, Kmart, which was headquartered in the Detroit area. Rob’s family worked in the air-conditioned offices, in management, sales, accounting, and marketing. Most of the production workers on the sweltering factory floor were black.

I was hired not as office or production but as shlepper who would do anything asked, whether it was folding tarps, counting grommets, or waiting for a job and being bored until closing time. But Canvas Products also had my first pre-college classes which could have been named Introduction to Sociology, the Black Experience in America, and the Psychology of Work. I learned more there than I learned from half of the classes I attended at Wayne.

I learned about Vietnam from my new Vietnam-vet-friend, Carl. I watched how the experienced Duke, following his many years of work, was able to get away with anything, even if he wasn’t the actual supervisor. I witnessed how one of Rob’s cousins, the son of the owner, could sit in the back stock room and never officially work. No one said anything to the owner and I assume his son still got paid.

A class I never expected to take was Introduction to Dreams, Desperation, and Despair that I attended at Canvas Products. But I couldn’t help taking notes as I watched the new Negro girl in the sewing department. Her name was Edweena and I remember her as a 1975-era Tyra Banks. She kept many of the Canvas men working there rather than quitting their jobs. She motivated me more than any manager to work hard and not be labeled as the young, lazy, white, Jewish, suburban, friend-of-the-owner’s cousin, which I was. I’d focus on folding and counting and helping Carl and Duke with their work while I kept my other eye on the young sewing gal with the terrific figure.

The summer drifted and my fantasies grew. I’d imagine taking Edweena to a restaurant, wowing her with my charm and humor. That I was overweight, pimple-faced, had never dated before, and had never actually communicated with anyone black before Canvas Products raised the odds against me. But I went on a diet, washed my face daily, read Native Son, Black Like Me, and The Invisible Man, and gave myself a 1 to 100 chance of actually speaking to her.

I did, only a few weeks left in my summer job. On my way to lunch, I said, hello. The next day, I said, hi, how are you doin’? The next, how’s the job treating you? Within a week, I discovered that Edweena loved jazz like me, listened to John Coltrane, and was a really nice girl. Within another week, I asked her for her phone number and called her.

We talked for an hour and I realized it didn’t matter what she looked like. I really liked her and I was planning to ask a woman out on a date for the very first time in my life. I finally got up the nerve and asked at work if she would consider going out with me: “how about listening to some jazz with me at my favorite jazz club, Baker’s Keyboard Lounge?”

Even if I never went to this landmark Detroit jazz club, I sounded like I was an experienced jazz devotee. I don’t know if I expected a slap on the face or a how-can-I-be-seen-with-a-homely-white-Jew-like-you response, but I was stunned to hear a simple, reserved “yes.”

I became Goldmanella, the poor boy with no self-esteem, ready to go to the Ball.

I looked into my closet, found my best polyester pants, a shirt that didn’t look like pajamas and didn’t have a pocket, and listened to my jazz records. I peeled some yellow paint off my Ford Custom, got gas and a car wash, and was ready to tell my parents the good news.

It was my mother’s 40th birthday on September 10th and my dad wanted us to celebrate at a restaurant. It was the rare occasion when all five of us would find a restaurant that wouldn’t make one of us sick.

I waited until the birthday cake was passed around to explain to my parents why I was so excited. I told them their oldest son was actually going on his first date. They must have wondered if it was with a nice Jewish girl like Shari Aaron, one of the Craig twins, or maybe Jeff Edelstein’s sister.

I told them that the girl I was dating was black and good-looking and lived in Detroit and that we were going to dance at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge on 8 Mile Road in Detroit and that I had never been this excited in my entire life.

I can’t remember my parents’ faces exactly but I think they turned a shade of ashen white. They could hardly speak though I promised them that this didn’t mean anything serious or marriage. I just believed that a first date would change my life for the better and I would eventually show them and the rest of the world that whites and blacks could live in harmony in a world with no prejudice and no fear.

A phone call on the next night, September 11th, 1975, changed my life. While I sat nervously between my father and zaydeh in my nicest polyester outfit, Edweena called and told me, in a quiet and sad voice, that it wasn’t a good idea to go out. She thought it was best for us “just to remain friends.”

I slumped back into the living-room couch and found the nerve to tell my parents that my first date had been cancelled.

Even though I knew they were probably relieved, my mother and father said that they felt badly for me. I usually kept my deepest feelings hidden but this time I couldn’t. Holding back tears, I had never felt more forlorn and alone.

The next week, I was simply thankful that my summer job was over so I wouldn’t have to see Edweena again. I would miss my new friend, Carl, who taught me about war, trust, and friendship, and I knew I would see Rob in college. But my almost-first-date was gone from my life for good.

When the first day at Wayne State started, I sat on the hall floor by my first scheduled class, Spanish 4, scared not so much from the transition to a large “urban” university with 35,000 students but because I had signed up for a very difficult schedule. When I had taken the pre-college Spanish test, I hadn’t understood one single oral sentence in my headphones, so I decided to guess the entire test, picking random answers on every question. Within a two hour time limit, I was finished in ten minutes. But I had guessed well enough to place into Spanish 4 and now, the moment was here. It would be discovered that I didn’t know Spanish at all and I would flunk out of my first class.

When my friend, Jeff, who had transferred to Wayne, walked by and said not to worry, I began to breathe again. He convinced me to change my classes and join with him in “Introduction to Speech” and “Current Events”.

I took his advice and realized how nice it was to have an old friend to sit next to during a tough transition. “Current Events” turned out to be the hardest class I have ever taken, its subject matter the entire history of the world, its textbook the daily New York Times. For the final exam, we could study 20 possible questions from notes and newspapers in which 4 would be chosen, and I studied steadily for 3 days in a row, over 16 hours a day, from every New York Times sprawled out on my bedroom’s basement floor. Even though one of the questions asked was “Bound the Moslem Caliphate and Discuss the Underlying Social, Psychological, and Historical Ramifications on its Society” and we both glared at each other, said, “OH GOD,” and wrote 40 minutes of B.S. as fast as we could, it was still worth it. Even if only 3 out of 472 students got As and we didn’t, when the semester was finished, I was still relieved.

I had made it through my first semester of college after finishing my first real job. I still hadn’t gone on my first date yet but I had had my first dream girlfriend, the black girl at the sewing machine, still so mysterious that I didn’t remember her name until my friend, Rob, mentioned it one night at an Asian restaurant. How could I forget the name, Edweena?  I could envision her silhouette against the factory floor, the fluttering in her voice when she said she couldn’t go out with me. I started to wonder if she was a mother now, a grandmother, or dead.

How could I forget the black ghost of Edweena, the first person to break my heart?

 

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” Mark Twain

Still Born to Run

November 10, 2007

 

“Baby this town rips the bones from your back, It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap

,We gotta get out while we’re young, ‘Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run.”

Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen, 1975

 

I almost forgot the power of rock and roll. It had been so many years since I’d been to a rock concert that I couldn’t turn down a friend who, after his wife turned him down, invited me to see the Boss at the Palace.

Before I married, I went to a lot of rock concerts. I remembered when my cousin Bob, my friend Scott, and I crossed the Detroit-Windsor Bridge at exactly 6:00am on the morning of July 17th, 1980 the night after a Who concert at CNE Stadium, Toronto. Unable to get a hotel room anywhere in the city and after giving up trying to catch some sleep in my compact Fiat Strada, I drove us home, staying awake on pure adrenalin and a large bag of salty peanuts. When we entered Detroit, I joked that we could take a turn off the bridge to the Detroit Ren Cen and visit the Republican Convention on its last day in Detroit. Maybe we’d see Ronald Reagan on the elevator.

Going to a rock concert at fifty years of age is like my dad listening to Jumping Jack Flash in 1968. My dad was not a fan of the Stones before ’68 or after. But I was a Stones and a Springsteen fan then and haven’t stopped listening to Springsteen since my high school graduation.

Flash back 32 years to my senior year of high school when I graduated in June of 1975, five years before the Republican convention at the Joe Louis Arena. I knew I was going to college in Detroit but that’s all I knew, being an unsure 18-year-old with a summer job and plenty of time to burn while listening to records in my basement bedroom.

I had heard about “Born to Run,” the new Bruce Springsteen album, after it was released on August 25, 1975. After I listened to the title song on FM radio, I bought the album and spent a lot of nights listening to its eight tracks, including “Thunder Road,” Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” “Night,” “Backstreets,” “Meeting Across the River,” “She’s the One,” and “Jungle Land.” I was a music junkie, imagining myself a rock star, strumming my guitar, screaming out lyrics to a thunderous audience. There was no “Guitar Hero” video game then but that didn’t stop me from learning the lyrics to most of Bruce’s songs, especially “Born to Run”:

“In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream

At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines

Sprung from cages out on highway 9,

Chrome wheeled, fuel injected

And steppin’ out over the line

Baby this town rips the bones from your back

It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap

We gotta get out while we’re young

‘Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run.”

“Born to Run” was the perfect teenager song, filled with rebellion, passion, speed, suicide, and escape, and made my heart beat faster than my middle-aged heart can handle today. When the legendary riff erupted in an encore at the Palace on November 5th, 2007, I acted like a high school kid again and couldn’t believe that I still remembered most of the words. Actually, for much of Bruce’s “Magic Tour” concert return to the Detroit area, I stood and swayed and sang and shouted and clapped. I didn’t feel all that much different from the 18-year-old high school graduate who first fell for the Boss.

My mind flew back to the night of October 4th, 1975, when my buddies and I drove without tickets to the Palace in downtown Detroit to witness what Time and Newsweek both put on their covers 23 days later, the dawning of a rock and roll legend. We liked the album but we hadn’t been to concerts before and didn’t know what to expect. The rumor was that Bruce put on a great show, but to novices like us, what did that mean?

We got our tickets and when the doors opened, we raced to the closest seats we could find. It was general admission only and the first to arrive were the luckiest. We stood up most of the night, not knowing songs like “Rosalita”, but knew that we had to be at one of the greatest concerts ever. The passion and intensity increased through the night until the four encores 3 ½ hours later, when we left, looking at each other like, “Do you believe what we just witnessed?”

In the back lights of memory, I think this was the greatest concert night of my life, better than the 1980 Who concert, better even than 2007’s Bruce revival.

The 2007 Bruce was a close second to the 1975 Bruce. The “Magic Tour” concert was about an hour less so the lights could rise faster and the baby-boomers could get out of the parking lot quickly to get home and go to bed. Much of the audience, many even older than me, had to get up early the next morning for work.

But that didn’t stop Tony and I and the two middle-aged women to my right from standing up much of the night, dancing in our singular spots and singing out loud to the newest songs from his latest CD, Magic, all the way back to oldies like “The River”. The two women on my right introduced themselves to me as Pam and Jill from Grand Rapids, ironically the same names as two of my wife’s best friends. I wasn’t interested in my next-door neighbors as I was in my own world, listening to some of my favorite music. But that didn’t stop Jill from bumping into me when she danced and yelling into my right ear with her booze-tinged breath. I wanted to yell at her to mind her own business but she was drunk and I had little room to stand or breathe in the air’s overwhelming beer-breath.

Bruce started with “Radio Nowhere” from his new album, Magic, and played a few more from the album, including “Livin’ in the Future,” a favorite of mine. He did a rare “Jackson Cage” from the 1980 album, The River, and favorites, “She’s the One,” and “Tunnel of Love.” A young boy had a handwritten note that said, “Ramrod please,” and Springsteen honored the request because the boy had “been rocking all night. My kid’s 16, he’d be asleep by now.” I was thrilled that the girls next door to me left for at least 30 minutes to get more beer but when Jill came back to her seat, she stood and fell into me and down to the ground. If it were a boxing match, I would have been happy with the knockout but a few fans and I pulled her from the ground. She thanked us by tilting to the side and throwing up as she made her way up the aisle’s stairs with her friend. I wondered how they were going to drive back to Grand Rapids and hoped that they’d sleep in their car until morning to spare unsuspecting drivers from these drunks.  

When they were gone, I focused on the last songs of the night, including “Badlands,” the double encore of “Born to Run” and “Dancing in the Dark,” and the final song, “American Land,” in which the lyrics were displayed on the big screen above, while the audience sang along.

Tony apologized for the unlucky seats but even with the drunk women, it was still a great concert and well worth attending. How many times in a middle-aged life, can you let your hair down and act like a kid? Of course, I have almost no hair left to let down but that didn’t stop me from acting like I did when I had my long-dark-brown-afro-haircut, circa 1975, like Michael Jackson.

Springsteen, unlike Michael Jackson, hasn’t changed all that much in the last thirty-some years. He still rocks like he did when he was a kid; he still writes, sings, and plays great, uplifting music. He is still a high-energy performer who has aged but hardly looks his age. And I would argue that his newest albums are just about as good as his earliest.

No matter how many years go by, Bruce makes us feel that we are still, weary legs and all, born to run.

 

“Life is short, Break the Rules.
Forgive quickly, Kiss SLOWLY.
Love truly. Laugh uncontrollably
And never regret ANYTHING
That makes you smile.”

Mark Twain

 

Fear and Balloons

December 3, 2007

 

Why is that we wait until someone is dead before we acknowledge their specialness?

Why do we live in fear and forget the “specialness” we all have?

 

There is so much fear in the air today. As the housing, credit markets, and stock market swoon, we read of recession, our homes descending in value, a possible financial meltdown coming. The hovering fears of Iran building a nuclear bomb or the U.S. attacking Iran to stop them from building a bomb still linger in the air. We wrestle with Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan and hear that 200 potential terrorists have just been arrested in Saudi Arabia. We worry about the escalating costs of health care and the fear of our parents or children getting cancer.  

Fear is a closed-head injury, self-fulfilling, driven by thoughts and chatter from networks, newspapers. We keep telling ourselves what we fear will happen.

Wouldn’t it be nice to stop hearing politicians spouting of a life and death struggle with radical Muslims who want to kill us for our freedom? Wouldn’t it be great to have a leader now say, “This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance?” Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke these words in his 1933 inauguration address in the midst of a national depression.

You can’t be afraid when you listen or read Wayne Dyer. His voice and words are like green tea with honey, soothing and good for you. Wayne Dyer writes in his book inspired by the Tao Te Ching, Change Your Thoughts—Change Your Life, that we must “let go and let God.” It’s a common theme in his books, for us to surrender to the now and not dwell on the past or future. We can be happy by being flexible, not attached to our objects or our thoughts. The secret, he says, is not to dwell on what we want or what we fear but to simply give in to the “source” who will direct us as knowing parts of the universe.

On Thanksgiving, Nancy Levin gave in to the source, knowing her ultimate fear had already occurred with the loss of her son, Miles. She said she opened her “eyes this morning to the first snow of the season…confusion: a fusion of sadness and warm memory. Mile loved snow.” She wrote later, “This is what I’m grateful for today: to have had the opportunity to know love; not all do. I have had the privilege of experiencing total pure love for another, without hesitation, without apprehension, without personal gain.” Dyer and Lao Tzu would probably say that what Nancy describes is the essence of love, the ultimate good.

I wasn’t able to visit and witness the balloon celebration for Miles Levin on the day after Thanksgiving in the early afternoon at Cranbrook’s football field but after reading Nancy’s Carepages.com blogs, I felt as if I were there: “There is no word, no single word that could capture whatever happened today between 1pm and 2:20 at the Oval. If the whole darn thing weren’t so sad, so unfortunate, so painfully real, I would call the day perfect. It is impossible to ignore the cause for this celebration, but it is very possible to feel satisfaction. Knowing that my Miles was honored, validated, embraced, cherished, and loved—and he was all that today—brings a measure of peace. Knowing that Miles’ final wish—a public expression of his value by his friends and community—was granted, that I fulfilled my promise to him in his final days and hours, allows me to know and feel that I am his mom. And being his mom means doing everything in my power to assure him that his wishes matter, especially when there was nothing else I could give him.”

In describing the release of the balloons, Nancy wrote, “The direction of the gentle wind pushed the balloons in the direction of the sky that was open to view—in a great expanse. The balloons moved in an amoeba like fashion, gradually and frequently reshaping itself as the collection moved higher, yet retaining its integrity throughout its journey upwards. The back-drop of the pure blue sky in combination with golden sunshine created the effect of clarity, color, and crispness, like floating diamonds. Occasionally, a lone balloon would drift from the pack as the wind, like life, moved the form in unexpected directions…many in the crowd reported seeing the shape of a heart in the center of the formation. Others reported seeing an “M” (for Miles) clearly emerge as a figure from the ground…the primary colors created a spectacular show as each one glistened as a slightly different facet of this jewel.”

I wish I had been there but now, I can still picture the release of fear and sadness in those balloons. I can envision Nancy’s clear message, “I walked away from the day with a strengthened conviction of my son’s unfathomable, unexplainable, unbelievable being…if I didn’t have to leave the Celebration which was for most an edifying experience to face the reality that Miles is gone, if I didn’t have to realize that it was only because of cancer that Miles compressed a lifetime of growth into two years emerging as something close to saint, I would recommend that everyone should experience a memorial, a day of recognition and honor. Why is that we wait until someone is dead before we acknowledge their specialness?”

Why indeed? Why do we live in fear and forget the “specialness” we all have? Why are we occupied with dread when we can put our minds into the open sky? We can fill our mind and heart with a “mesmerizing display of color and light,” imagining balloons filled with pain and loss floating up and away, up and away until they vanish.  

 

“All good things must end….Whatever it is, it’s going to end, and when it does, if you can say, “I enjoyed that,” that’s as much as you can be given, so let that be enough.” Miles Levin, Carepages.com

 

Turn Fear into Gratitude

December 23, 2007

 

When we replace the primal fears of what might lie just outside our fingerprints with what we have today, we can begin to settle down. If we focus on the good things we have, the little mitzvahs that are all around us, fear starts to dissipate.

 

I had forgotten that this was my brother’s 39th birthday. I remembered as I was watching Meet the Press and Tim Russert announced next Sunday’s show featuring the leading candidates for the Iowa Caucus, Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama. The caucus will be held on January 3rd, my 51st birthday.

The wind outside is blustery. I had to tape the glass fireplace doors with two pieces of tape so they wouldn’t keep flapping open. The rain erased all the snow last night and today, the temperature is supposed to drop over 15 degrees to the mid-20s by the late afternoon.

It’s two days before Christmas and many days since Chanukah has passed. I have read the Sunday news today, exercised, taken a shower, and watched Reliable Sources on CNN and Meet the Press. Now, I don’t feel like doing anything.

Kenny would have been one year away from turning 40 today. I should call my parents and sister and see how they’re doing. I know I should check and see how they’re coping but I don’t feel like it.

I have little excitement about this presidential race. I wonder if Joe Biden and Christopher Dodd, two Democratic candidates far behind in the polls, would be better presidents than the others in the forefront of the news media. When they went on CBS/MSNBC’s Imus Show before Don was fired in the summer, they both seemed smart and experienced, capable of running the country. Since Imus was fired from CBS and MSNBC, I haven’t heard him or Dodd or Biden.

I am not afraid of the other candidates although fear will probably drive the election. There will be fear of electing a woman, especially one with the baggage of Hillary, fear of electing a young black man with a questionable past or a Mormon who changes his views for each of his elections, fear of electing an ex-mayor who has left two wives and is pro-choice, fear of electing a preacher-governor who doesn’t believe in evolution, and fear of electing an old senator who is still a strong supporter of the Iraq War. When Obama was asked in Iowa about America’s climate of fear, he said, “We have been operating under a politics of fear: fear of terrorists, fear of immigrants, fear of people of different religious beliefs, fears of gays that they might get married and that somehow that would affect us. We have to break that fear of fear.”

In a Newsweek article, “The Roots of Fear,” (Newsweek, Dec. 24, 2007), Sharon Begley writes that fear has been the main catalyst for many of the elections in the last two decades. The Willie Horton crime ad was instrumental in the defeat of Michael Dukakis in 1988 and an Osama Bin Laden video playing on the news channels on the weekend before the 2004 election helped seal John Kerry’s defeat. “The evolutionary primacy of the brain’s fear circuitry makes it more powerful than reasoning circuits,” the article states while highlighting how Bush’s dog ads played on primal fears that “Kerry’s weakness would draw predators” to the United States.

The year of 2007 has had its share of primal fears, fear that the housing market collapse would lead to recession, fear that the banks and credit markets might collapse, fear that we might follow war with Iraq with war with Iran, fear that Pakistan would fall to terrorists who would have nuclear weapons within their grasp. But as usual, fears may have been overblown. The surge in Iraq has shown some success in reducing death and bloodshed in U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. Iran’s nuclear ambitions may have been overzealously reported. The stock market continues to perform well for now, inflation is still controlled, unemployment is low, and there is still some growth in the American economy.

When we replace the primal fears of what might lie just outside our fingerprints with what we have today, we can begin to settle down. If we focus on the good things we have, the little mitzvahs that are all around us, fear starts to dissipate. We just need to be thankful for our lives and the freedoms we have, to focus on the wonders that we see everyday.

Today, I am grateful for the Jewish Community Center for creating a wonderful brochure announcing and celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Kenny Goldman Jr. NBA/Jr. WNBA Basketball League. I am thankful that Elizabeth Applebaum, a former writer for the Jewish News and a marketing person for the Detroit Jewish Community Center, asked me to give some information about Kenny and a photo. My parents and I found a photo of Kenny smiling with a microphone at his bar mitzvah, taken 26 years ago on January 3, 1982, my 25th birthday.

The last paragraph of the JCC insert page about Kenny ends, “In addition to basketball, Kenny was a fan of baseball, football and hockey; Magic Johnson and the MSU Spartans were favorites. He collected sports card and coins and ‘had a gift of humor and an unabashed enthusiasm for life. He loved music and records, and his favorite song was “The Logical Song” by Supertramp which began, ‘When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful, a miracle, oh, it was beautiful, magical.’”

I am thankful for the 13 ½ years of Kenny’s beautiful, magical life, the flood of memories he inspired, thankful that the MSU Spartans won a basketball game last night over undefeated Texas at the Palace and coincidentally saw Ervin Magic Johnson on Meet the Press this morning as he appeared next to Hillary and Bill Clinton. I am thankful that I can still call my parents and sister today and find out how they’re feeling and tell them that I love them.

I can stop feeling blah and drop my negative “humbug” spirit. I can still wash away my fears and feel deep and lasting gratitude for what I have. And then I can hope for even better things to come, only eight days before the next New Year.

 

“I gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which I must stop and look fear in the face…I say to myself, I’ve lived through this and can take the next thing that comes along.” Eleanor Roosevelt

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