24 July 2012


Rabbi Bachman and his family are deeply moved by the outpouring of love and support our community has shown; he looks forward to seeing everyone next week during Shiva back in Brooklyn.  The rabbi lives in an apartment at 20 Plaza Street #E2, Brooklyn.

Here is the schedule for Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.

Sunday:  Tisha B'Av, A Fast Day Commemorating the Destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC & 70 AD.   Hours:  Beginning at 7:30 am with Morning Minyan then open house until 1 pm.  Then 3 pm til 9 pm with an Evening Minyan at 8 pm.  Please come anytime throughout the day.

Monday:  Hours:  Beginning at 7:30 am with Morning Minyan, then open house until 1 pm.  Then 3 pm til 9 pm with an Evening Minyan at 8 pm.  Please come anytime throughout the day.

Tuesday:  Hours:  Beginning at 7:30 am with Morning Minyan, then open house until 1 pm.  Then 3 pm til 9 pm with an Evening Minyan at 8 pm.  Please come anytime throughout the day.

To honor Barbara Bachman's memory, people are encouraged to contribute to the creation of CBE's 150th Anniversary Sefer Torah, the first in New York City written entirely by a Sofert (female scribe.)  You can contribute at HERE.  

23 July 2012

BMB: Funeral and Shiva Information

Barbara M. Bachman, z"l

Graveside burial will take place at Spring Hill Cemetery, Hawley Road, Milwaukee, on Wednesday July 25 at 10 am immediately followed by a reception at Big Bay Brewing Company, Shorewood, WI. 

Rabbi Bachman will sit Shiva in Brooklyn on July 29, 30, & 31.  Shacharit Minyan will occur at 7:30 am and Maariv Minyan will occur at 8 pm each day at Rabbi Bachman's home, 20 Plaza Street, Apt E2, Brooklyn.   
To honor Barbara's love of books and the power of ancient and contemporary narrative traditions, contributions are requested in her memory to support the CBE Sefer Torah project. 
To read my tribute to Mom, you may look here.

May Barbara Bachman's memory be an enduring blessing.

22 July 2012

Barbara: May 3, 1933-July 22, 2012

Mom died this morning with Robin, Jackie, & Steven by her side.  Her sister Jean close by.  Graveside burial will be Wednesday morning with Shiva in Milwaukee, followed by Shiva in Brooklyn.  Details to follow.

She stopped eating last week, explaining in a fit of pique, "I don't like turkey anymore."  The pain from the cancer was just too much; and without food or drink for one week's time, with morphine to ease her respiration, and an abundance of love from family and the amazing staff at the Milwaukee Jewish Home--Mom, intrepid reader, began a new chapter.  Like the thousands of books that passed through her hands in her lifetime, she put down this one called Life and turned to a new one, an other-worldly novella about Memory and Eternity.

Minna fell asleep tonight reviewing all the Wisconsin sports songs she knows, closing as we often do with the alma mater of UW-Madison, "Varsity," which includes the words, "Praise to thee we sing; praise to thee our alma mater."  Minna asked, "What does alma mater mean?"  And when I told her it meant, "nourishing mother" in Latin, Minna drifted off to sleep and the phone rang in the kitchen.  It was Jackie explaining that we were losing Mom.

Nourishing Mother:  Takes her children apple picking in the Fall; serves warm grilled cheese and tomato soup in the Winter; roasts a rosemary chicken in the Spring; slices watermelon, roasts corn, grills burgers and dogs in the Summer.

Nourishing Mother:  Says to a son eager to learn, "Follow your instinct with your reading--it's the most fun."  Loves to quote David Letterman's latest pranks.  Wants to hear, ad nauseam/ad infinitum, my adventures from high school and college when skirting trouble was sport.  My friends were like other sons to her.  One visited her last week and made her smile by teasing her about her hair.

Nourishing Mother:  Who taught me to pray in childhood's bedtime mystery and darkness, instinctively offering the promise of a loving world beyond fear.  Whose own struggles with Faith left her at the end of her life with more questions than answers, a comforting idea in today's world of dangerous certainties.  A woman of valor who "looks for wool and flax and sets her hand to them with a will...she gives generously to the poor, her hands are stretched out to the needy."

Mom's father, Norman Mueller, was murdered in the workplace in 1939, by a depressed and troubled man who wanted to return to work but wasn't yet ready.  This grandfather whom I never met was taken from life; and the hole it left in my mother's life--from age six until she died--was a darkness that hovered nearby much of her life.  News of shootings, like the recent killings in Colorado, traumatized her anew; they brought her low.  And as clouds lifted, year in and year out, one certainty would emerge:  guns are evil and the policies that allow for their abundant availability need to be defeated by courageous politicians listening to the demands of dogged civic activism.

Mom would shake her head in silence reading that last paragraph.  Talking about it didn't make much sense to her.  Instead, she decided to vote her agendas and be as kind as she could be to everyone she met or simply quiet in the presence with those who annoyed her (mostly pretentious people and blabber-mouths.)

But the bullet that ripped through her childhood also gave her a steely resolve:  from high school to  college she entered the workforce, got married, built a family, got a divorce, supported her family, and made it through to the end.  The ability to pay for her last month in palliative care and hospice was a modest investment she knocked away.  After taking care of us as kids, she set aside just enough to take care of herself.

I loved her resourcefulness, her modesty, her decency.  Her loyalty as a daughter and sister were equally inspiring.  In the mid-eighties, when my grandmother's hearing all but disappeared, my mom would call her by dialing the number and putting the phone down.  It could sit that way for several minutes.  When I questioned her methodology she said, "Well, I told my mother about it and we made a deal:  I wait for her and she waits for me."  Her love was practical.

Mom visited me twice in Israel.  In 1986, on her first trip, she kept a diary.  Several entries remark on the rosemary bushes and eucalyptus trees.  In 1990, during my first year of rabbinic school, I took her around with my friend Rob Ullian, who writes the Frommer's guide and knows a lot of good places to eat.   When I told her last month that I saw Rob recently, she said, "Remember that mushroom soup we ate with him?  That was delicious!"  In 2010, though exhausted from treatment, she flew to Brooklyn and stood with Audrey as she read Torah for her Bat Mitzvah.  What did you think?  I asked her.  She simply shook her head and smiled with pride.  Like I said, her love was practical, even humble.

The Brewers' season has hit the skids, drought is killing off corn in Wisconsin.  The cherries in Door County are not really happening this year, either.  Mom has had enough.  A rest awaits her that is more than well-deserved.  A darkness that has chased her since 1939 has given way to light.

Mom fearlessly crossed two bridges in her lifetime, preparation one might say, for the Journey ahead.

First, she left the insular world of her Wauwatosa upbringing in the mid-1950s, moved in an East Side social circle with her childhood best-friend Donna, and like her friend, married a Jew before eventually becoming one herself.  Second, she divorced my dad in the 1970s, a painful transition into total independence--a streak of quirky uniqueness and stubbornness that was both admirable and frustrating. It meant as children that to a degree, we grew up together with Mom and as we all have matured in our adulthood, we came to accept that reality as a necessary set of steps and transformations along life's path.  Bridges, we all know, lead toward and away from destinations.  And now that third bridge, her physicality fading into the horizon but her essence, perhaps, drawing near.

Going into Shabbat last night, anticipating it as her last, I played some of Mom's scratchy old records:  Ella Fitzgerald singing the Cole Porter Songbook; Frank Sinatra's "In the Wee Small Hours;" Roberta Flack "Killing Me Softly;" Neil Diamond's "Hot August Night."  You gotta believe, sometimes.  

When we took the girls out to Wisconsin in December for a visit with their grandma and a Packers game, we exercised the sentimental/cliche clause of the Jewish Family Contract and took Mom out for Chinese Food on Christmas Eve.  Milwaukee Magazine claimed that Emperor of China was the city's best, an assessment confirmed by the 90 minute wait we encountered upon arrival.  So we went next door to the Roman Coin, an old tavern on Brady Street.  A Harley parked out front had Christmas lights and a Blatz sign hung over the entry.

Inside nursing beers were two guys just off their shifts, kibbitzing with the bartender, who intuited our dilemma, produced a deck of cards and invited us to wait there til our table was ready at the restaurant next door.  We had such a good time that we decided to have the food delivered to the bar.  "How very New York of us," Mom joked.  And so it was that her cold December night became an extravaganza with food, drinks, and summer camp card games with her granddaughters:  after six long years of breast, lung, brain and spine cancer, Mom had her own night of redemption.  "I haven't had this much fun in years," she said, and then, without missing a beat, stared down one of the girls and their amateurish bluff at cards to steal a victory with one word, "Bullshit."

Lois does a good imitation of that moment--so good that Mom, from a very comfortable chair somewhere, with a good book under a warm lamp, needles and yarn, the Journal in her lap and David Letterman on the television, will be having a big laugh about it for many lives to come.  Sometimes, you gotta believe.

***Memorial Contributions in honor of my mother can be made to the Congregation Beth Elohim Sefer Torah Project.  My mom believed in the transformative power of reading.  And she was enormously proud that CBE had commissioned the writing of the first Torah Scroll in the history of New York City written by a female Scribe.

10 July 2012

Into the Abyss

When I read about the obscene amount of money being raised in this year's Presidential election--a series of profligate expenditures that ought to make the same fiscal conservatives who are bankrolling the Republican side blush at the resources invested (if they had any shame) and ought to shame the President, who ran on the platform of a new politics that is apparently new only in so far as the amount of money raised in order to win is at absurdly high levels (a new fiscal stimulus, perhaps, for media and advertising executives?)--I harken back to this old missive, received by mother in 1976 after Congressman Morris Udall's (a Morman, I might add) failed bid for the Democratic nomination.

Udall had dropped by our house that year, as had another erstwhile candidate, Fred Harris, whose campaign was purposely shoe-string budgeted and he actually took a nap at our house while on the campaign trail.

While we breathe a sigh of relief that the United States Supreme Court upheld most dimensions of President Obama's Health Care Reform, we ought to gird our loins for what will be the greatest devaluation of our nation's definition of "free speech" (thanks to a more infamous Supreme Court decision in Citizens United.

As we slide into the abyss of corporate ownership over politics, I hang on to this letter from Udall--so innocent, so sincere, hoping against hope that our politics may one day be redeemed.

09 July 2012

Held Close

"A short while before he died."
I heard this once, passing beside two
Talking beside an intersection.

Like someone you part from
Who enters a dream
Never to return.

Or, like when you turn out a glorious chandelier
with many bulbs.
You have to flip the switch at every level.
The small lights; the large ones, too.
And only then, darkness.

 -Yehuda Amichai, 1978   [זמן קצר לפני מותו]

Dying is experienced twice--by he who dies and he who mourns.  Both are talking at the intersection of life and death.

The intersection when Dad died was occupied first by continual pleas to get to the doctor (refused) and then by a ridiculous calm, a distraction of wildly contemplative proportions.  I'll never forget the day.  Professor Patrick Riley's Political Philosophy Seminar in Madison.  Me, lost in thought.  My mind wandering from his brilliant words to the margins of a notebook.  Lines, drawings, the mapped meanderings of a troubled mind.  After weeks of lightning sharp focus, March 22, 1983 was like a cul de sac of distraction.  The class ends, a quick walk up State Street in the middle of the day.  An urgency to get home.  And there at home.  My roommate Pete.  Angry as ever.  Another injustice.  And my uncle, my dad's brother, there to break the news I already knew.  "Sit down, Andy, I have something to tell you."

But I knew already.

I often thought of that news as confirmation of something I was already preparing for having happened:  and heard its decisive reality "in passing," not unlike the way Amichai describes it in his poem above.  There was a fluid, consistent motion to the events that followed.  Packing a bag, hugging my roommate, walking to the car, driving the ninety minute trip to southeast to Milwaukee.  Prophetically, my uncle, Dad's brother, spoke the only words I remember from that day:  "He was a mechanic in the Army during the War but he never looked under the hood of his own car."

Tall, yellow prairie grass swaying in the March wind outside the car; my breath fogging the passenger window; my uncle's words, like blocks of truthful stone, or used apple cores, tumbling into the ditch, speeding by beside us.

An intersection of life and death.

It's different this time.  More like the lights--large and small--that we methodically close.  Those that burn bright--Mother--and those that are more easily darkened--dashed hopes, dreams unfulfilled.  Pictures, a song, an old friend's face, igniting memory-fuel and causing light to burn bright into that deep, dark night of forever.  A politician's idiocy; the electorate's ignorance; a young team's hope--each a reason to stay in the game one more season, to hold out hope for a final victory.  Lights flickering, dimming, then suddenly charging and flashing forth, heroic, only to fade.

Each the Torah of Truth.  Each a text to be studied, learned from, held close, like a scroll passed among the people on the Day of Rest.  Hands reaching out, touching light and love.

08 July 2012

The Keys to the Door

ercole de roberti's "destruction of jerusalem"
It's not a pretty picture no matter how you look at it.  Wanton death and destruction in the first century was fierce, hand to hand, and the streets generally flowed with blood.  Last summer at this time I was reading Simon Sebag Montefiore's "Jerusalem:  A Biography" and was transfixed in horror by many of the depictions of Jerusalem's destructions throughout the ages.  While instinct tells me to be skeptical when people say there are fewer wars and fewer deaths as a result today, it's also true than an Renaissance depiction of an ancient conflagration can bring such wanton violence into its humbling, if proper, perspective.

The Fast of Tammuz is commemorated today on the Jewish calendar, a day marking the breaching of the walls by the Roman forces in 70 a.d.--three weeks prior to the destruction of the 2nd Temple.  This is the beginning of a customary mourning period in religious Judaism,  based fundamentally on the rabbinic idea (which itself was derived from the prophets understanding of the theodicy of national calamity) מפני חטאינו גלינו מארצנו  that is to say, "Because of our sins we were exiled from our land."  More succinctly but certainly no less troubling:  "We done this to ourselves."

Really?  The vast power of the Roman Empire v. a small Jewish nation dyad leads us to conclude it wasn't a fair fight, correct? And that an Omnipotent Creator of the Universe "chose" not to intercede as he had in Egypt during the Exodus, leaves us with the conclusion that he's either Impotent or he sat this one out and let us have it because, well, we deserved it.  Take your pick.

I believe neither.  Somewhere in between is a moral God who animates existence, informs choice, and who mandates action but who never intercedes, certainly not in the way we learn about in Exodus.  And this the Sages faced in their own time, agonizingly determined to keep hold of their faith while at the same time not indicting God for his own sin of omission they dared not utter--not getting off his stool for the final round.  Towel thrown.  Bell rung.  Fight over.


I learned from the scholar Michael Fishbane in the summer of 1995.  Among the many texts we studied closely that summer was one particular rabbinic midrash in which the Sages depicted God's thinking at the time of the Destruction as "choosing Exile with Israel" in order to comfort them and continue to teach them.

To wit.  The certainty of traditional faith, expressed in one place by the Psalmist-- "The Lord answer thee in the day of trouble...He will answer him from His holy heaven, with mighty acts of his saving right hand."  (Psalm 20:2/7) is in another place the very words of anguish and fear of abandonment--"How long O God shall the adversary reproach?  Shall the enemy blaspheme thy name forever?  Why withdrawest Thou Thy hand?  Draw it out of Thy bosom and consume them!"  (Psalm 74:10-11)

The right hand, symbol of strength, has disappeared.  It has either been severed by the enemy (unthinkable!) or God has withdrawn it, has allowed for his beloved's destruction, in order to teach a new lesson to the people.  And in this destruction are the seeds of redemption.  In the midrash God cries like a mother for her child in labor--the labor of exile.  Isaiah is brought to bear to argue that in fact even God mourns the exile, "to weeping, and to lamentation, and to baldness and to girding with sackcloth" (Isaiah 22:12).

The internalized mourning of the God--through word and prayer--is brought into the Jew; and the Jew, therefore, has no choice but to accept that radical internalization of the Divine, and like God, take ultimate responsibility for his own actions.  The Sages, after all, point out that Moses is said to have destroyed the Ten Commandments on this day as well.  In anger at seeing the idolatry of the Golden Calf, he hurled to pieces the very words that were to guide the people.  In Exodus, the punishment described is for the sinners to ingest the broken pieces, to consume the very words they disobeyed.  A radical internalization indeed!

There is something terrifically human about this; inspiringly optimistic; and downright Zionist as well.  The dreamers who built the nation that enchants and tortures those in exile like us did exactly as what we would expect of Jews in exile to do:  they took responsibility for their actions, built a country, and went home.

The fascination and privilege of being alive to see it in our day is to allow those questions of ultimate responsibility to always be asked.

Questions like:  Is everything being done in the name of Justice and Peace?  Are the poor being fed?  The homeless being sheltered?  The rights of the "widow and the orphan" being defended against the mighty and powerful?

Those who protest for fair housing and wages in Tel Aviv; who struggle to ensure that borders are protected in a humane way; who fight for the right of a woman to ride a bus or walk down a sidewalk unmolested; who both defend Israel but work for peace; all of those are actions of those seeking responsibility, who hear the voice of exile calling but implore with their words and their deeds that this time, God's hand is not withheld.

This day is a terrible day but a necessary reminder that we hold the keys--always--to the door that leads us home.

06 July 2012

Unalienable Rights

That God can make a donkey talk, as he does in this week's Torah portion, Balak, brings to the murky surface of religiosity in a secular age the utter weirdness of divine thoughts in un-holy places.

Walking Surf Avenue on the Fourth of July this week, absorbing the overwhelming mass of a fast-food consuming mass of humanity, I found myself wondering about the prophecy of a Jewish mayor attempting to outlaw large sodas.  Call me crazy but this was actually a topic of conversation in our family.  The rights and wrongs of it.  The one kid we haven't sent off to camp yet asked very precise questions about this proposed policy and for a nine year old, exhibited an eager desire to absorb its social dimensions and implications.

For instance:  just as one may weigh the costs of people smoking (long-term effects on the health care system of cancer treatment) so too may one weigh the costs of people eating and drinking foods that cause obesity.  To what degree, as chief executive of a large public health system, is it a mayor's responsibility, to bring out into the open the lack of discipline people exercise with their eating habits?  If the poor use public hospitals; if the poor derive benefit from a Medicaid system; should not the poor be engaged in a broader debate about the very choices they are making over what goes into their bodies?  

But further:  aren't fast foods cheaper?  More accessible?  If so, why?  What does it say about the very structures of our economic system that bad food is more accessible and readily available than good food?  And is that always true?  How and where do the poor live?  Is there time to cook?  Is there enough room to sit at a table and eat?  Who's going to cook if the adults are working all the time to make ends meet?  And if they're not working, who can afford all that good organic food that the bourgeois love to eat?  How far are affordable grocery stores from working kitchens in well-designed homes that encourage a thoughtful, wholesome approach to eating and living?

And why all those goddamned tattoos?

Look:  I realize it was just the Fourth of July.  That the goal was to ride the Cyclone, catch a ballgame and see some fireworks.  But with a city at our feet to ask such fundamental questions of life, it feels like a real sin of omission not to engage.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

I have a love/hate relationship with these lines.  There are days when I love them, particularly when I want to be left alone.  And they are days when I hate them, particularly when I don't want to leave YOU alone.  

I hold this truth to be self-evident:  that because all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, we need to get involved in the situation when injustice denies the right to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness and, to be clear, buying a Big Gulp, a Nathan's hot dog, and bag of potato chips is not what the Framers had in mind when they talked about Happiness.

Neither are endless tracts of land, gin and tonics, Mercedes SUV's, and tax shelters in the Cayman Islands.

The Sages argue over the meaning of Balaam the prophet and whether or not this non-Jew had come to curse Israel or bless Israel.  And ultimately, the general view is that the broader story is about the tension between Divinity and human wisdom.  Balaam was considered a "sorcerer" (these thoughts arose at Coney Island, afterall) and just as Moses took on the sorcerers of Egypt to reveal the truths of the God of Justice and Freedom, so too does God intervene through the medium Balaam's donkey to convey a greater truth, a truth which, paradoxically, is missed by the Israelites in the closing passage.  

"While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god."  In a dramatic climax of sexual transgression and violence, Pinchas impales an Israelite man and his Moabite lover, stabbing both "through the belly."  It is a Principle of Grotesquerie that shocks the mind.  Both the mindless satisfaction of the self and the fanaticized murder to rid the culture of the impulse.

I'd imagine that most Bar Mitzvah kids don't study this passage too closely but they might consider it next time.

כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה--All of Israel is responsible for one another.  This is a Talmudic principle.

Living with each other in crowded cities; going to schools together; riding the trains; sharing the sidewalks; cheering for the home team.  Knowing what we know by living so closely to one another, it is any surprise that in the Haftarah the prophet Micah is chosen to soothe us with his words of radical simplicity:

"He had told you, O man, what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you:  only to do justice, and to love goodness, and walk modestly with your God."

In the re-write of the Declaration, the Framers might have considered adding that line.  One wonders what nation would have grown from a watered garden of rhetoric such as that.

05 July 2012

Fuel for the Grid

The preferred technique, when I was cutting grass, was to outline the yard with the mower as one would a baseball field, and then work inward in an intricate patchwork of diagonals which left an impression of thoughtful landscaping.  Hitching back in criss-cross patterns brought to mind the parquet floor of the Garden in Boston; and it also meant you could self-mulch, which saved money on bagging the grass--a wasteful indulgence.

I once unwittingly ran over a rabbit's nest, fur flying in a trauma alleviated only by a thorough investigation which determined the rabbits had long ago left for greener pastures.  I cut into the tip of my own big toe once, retrieving an electrical cord from an old Sunbeam mower, and flooded my share of Toros and Lawnboys due, in no small part, to my enthusiasm for handling a can of gasoline all by myself.

Before I could drive, my boss would pick me up most summer mornings by 7:30 am, go over the list of those whose yards I'd groom, and circle back on occasion with water, lemonade, and lunch.  Days ended at 6 pm, usually with a quick bite and off to play basketball, then ride bikes, and back to bed for another day.  Music was only on the car radio, not played on pods inserted into ears.  And so when there wasn't the buzz and hum of motors and cutting grass, branch and leaves, there was an abundant silence.  Cicadas on electrical wires; lazy bicycles spinning past; an occasional sprinkler lazily spraying.

A lot of time to think.

Some of the ideas I fetched from my mind were simple, almost folksy, like:  "If you want a new pair of Levis or Adidas, you have to get a job."  That struck me as reasonably as this one:  "Some people are rich; some people are poor.  Most people are in-between."  We were on the lower side of in-between but didn't really know it, until I realized that I was cutting lawns in the very district where I went to school, working on yards of the wealthier neighbors to family and friends, admiring their cars, drinking cool glasses of water in well-stocked, air-conditioned kitchens, and, most significantly for me by 1979 and 1980, arguing about politics.

The Republican Party was articulating an increasingly conservative approach to tax and welfare policy and granted, I was a teenager, but it struck me as fundamentally wrong that a rich person should want more while the poor seemed to have a hard time just getting some.  Protected, as it were, by the impenetrable economic fortress of race and class, these yards were idylls of separation.  Property taxes, school funding policies, and infrastructure investment were all new ideas to me, along with nuclear annihilation, the Cold War, lessons of Vietnam applied to tensions mounting in Central America and Middle East, girls, and the tragic, irreversible reality that I would grow no taller than 5'8"-- methodically laid out for me to think about, like the rows of grass I was cutting.  A grid for the future.  The map of America.

By that time Dad had been fired from his job in television and was struggling to make ends meet in real estate (he hated it) and shoes (a slightly better alternative to death, he reasoned.)  After kicking Dad out of the house, Mom worked on some community development and job training programs in the black parts of Milwaukee, in neighborhoods to where my Jewish great-grandparents immigrated from Russia.  She tried real estate, too, before settling in at other less intensely sales centered work.  But the point here is not so much what they did to make money as it is to illustrate that because they didn't make a lot of it, what we wanted beyond what was provided was going to be gained through our own work.  And of all the things I thought about--and I'm certain this is true--I didn't think about what I didn't have.  I just thought about how to get what I wanted.

In fact, I liked that I didn't have an over-abundance of materiality.  The underdog was always a sympathetic figure to me in film and literature.  It made sense to identify with him in life.  And so went our family politics.  Hard-working, principled, liberal Democratic politics.  Our views were homegrown.

One day, while closing up shop for the day and loading up the trunk of the car with mowers and gasoline, I argued about the 1980 election with the father of a friend whose lawn I was cutting, an argument wherein, with a big grin, he called me a "naive idiot."  It wasn't a particularly interesting argument.  He was fairly well-greased with a couple of gin and tonics and I was covered with clippings and dirt from his yard.  And believe you me, it was hardly a meeting between the patrician and the savage beast.  After all, though lower on the food chain, I was a member of the same bourgeois suburban enclave.  I went to school with his kid.  The only reason he paid more in property taxes than my parents did was because he had more property.  Even an idiot could figure that out.

I left agitated, annoyed.  And powerless to do anything to persuade a man that the measure of who we are is not how much we have but what we do with it.

I crossed a river that day--a river I had conjured while cutting, a shivering river in a mirage of humid prairie grass.  Its waters flowed with principles of decency and generosity; of honesty and hard work; of always knowing whose shoes you stand in and whose you don't.

"You can't take it with you," Dad used to say, adding his own special twist, "Son, ever see a hearse with a U-Haul on the back?"  This fueled me in that time.

"Receive wealth or prosperity without arrogance;" said Marcus Aurelius, whom they say, was friends with Judah the Prince "and be ready to let it go cheerfully."

He also said, "Enough of this complaining and groaning and ape-like chatter.  Why are you disturbed?  What is there new in this?  What unsettles you?  Is it the form of the thing?  Look at it.  Or is it the matter?  Look at it.  Besides these, there is nothing.  Towards the god(s), then, now at last become simpler and better.  It is the same whether we look at these things for a hundred years or three.

04 July 2012

Pall Mall

Pall Mall was a lawn game of ball and mallet -- a kind of precursor to croquet -- before it was a cigarette brand, that, if smoked unfiltered for several decades, can give you cancer and eventually make you die.

Pall Mall was the brand my parents smoked.  In the house, in the yard, in the car, at work, at the ballpark, wherever the urge overcame them.  It was the first cigarette I tried, in second grade, while waiting for the school bus.  Mom had left one lit in an ashtray and when she left the kitchen one morning I snuck a drag and then, in a monumental fit of convulsive hacking, stumbled down the driveway toward the bus.  My mom chased after me, gave me a sugary mint and said, "Don't something so stupid like that again."  That night Pall Mall was the first brand I threw in the garbage, much to my dad's ire when he found out, attempting to defend myself in defending them from the chemicals that would contribute to their demise.

Live and learn.  Or maybe it should be "learn and live."

In one of those weird, symbolic markers of mid-life transition, Mom and Dad both took up Benson and Hedges brand cigarettes after their divorce.   Like Pall Mall, whose name came from Westminster in London, Benson and Hedges had its antecedents in the British Empire as well.  By the 1970s and that insidious era of people liberating themselves from all sorts of things, Philip Morris Inc had divined that Benson and Hedges ought to reek of faux English sophistication.  Leisure suits, Studio 54 and Proposition 13 would not be far behind.

It's funny.  I equate every ephemeral parental upload and intake of tobacco, tar and nicotine with an inverse dismantling of my childhood.  It's as if through the smoke I saw myself putting my own life together while theirs came apart.  One morning soon after Dad moved out, my mom got up early, put on sweatpants and decided to go for a run.  She asked me to go with her.  In the cool of dawn we ran a half-mile out and a half-mile back, the first and only time in my entire life I saw her exercise.  A slight 115 pounds most of her life, she nevertheless struggled to breathe and after that morning never ran again.  When I asked her why she didn't want to run again she sighed and said, "I get what I need doing housework," then took a drag on her Benson and Hedges.

A child watches his parents.  He doesn't quite ignore what he sees but absorbs it quietly, stores it away, even buries it.  And then, if he's lucky, he receives a call in the middle of his umpteenth sleepless night from the Excavator, who hands him a pick-axe and says, "Let's go digging."

In the Reflecting Cave he sees himself as a boy.  And as a man.  He sees his parents as older than himself and he sees himself as older than they were when he remembers seeing them as older than he.  He puzzles over what this all means.

One image jars him each night.  It's the long-drag-from-a-cigarette stare into space.  If you grew up with it, you know what I mean.  Like a rocket that loses its fuselage after take off, it's heroic, bold, tragic and wasteful, all at the same time.

Dad had a heart attack that knocked him out of bed one morning 29 years ago and he was gone by the time my sister made it to his apartment.  Mom has fought off three cancers during the past six years, each of which reared its ugly head 20 years after she quit smoking.  That bastard, mutant gene.  Victorious.

Mom has care and loving-kindness now to alleviate the pain of bedsores and pneumonia which have begun to ravage her body.  One of the cancers is attacking her brain, fogging it, one might say, in a dementia that comes and goes like smoke.  She visits old addresses in Milwaukee and Madison, moves around the Jewish Home effortlessly, finding herself in different rooms at all parts of the day, even though we know she never leaves her bed.  The brain can be a trickster sometimes.

In Saturday night's phone call she was glad to hear about the Supreme Court decision about health-care but is skeptical about any new shot of political good-will to emerge.  "They still want to tear it down," she said, adding, "there's a long way to go to fix this country."  The Brewers frustrate her but she watches each night, stalwart.  If you look up "hospice" in her bedside dictionary it says, "I no longer read." Mostly she sleeps. 

When I was in rabbinical school in Jerusalem, I tried smoking myself.  I bought a pack of cigarettes and each morning on the walk to class and each afternoon on the way home, I'd smoke one.  In the mornings I'd smoke and drink a coffee; in the afternoons, it was always a Pesek Zman candy bar.  During the Sukkot break that year I hopped a plane to London to visit Rachel and when I came up the the escalator at the Underground stop in Highbury-Islington, she noticed the cigarettes.  "Interesting," she observed.  "What brand?"  "Time," I answered.

The cigarettes didn't last very long, but not far from Pall Mall I visited Westminster Abbey for the first time and from Shakespeare's grave wrote my mom a postcard.  "London's great, you'd love it here."

Her body never made it there but in her last days I hope her labyrinthian mind can conjure walkways, sculpted gardens, men in hats and women in long dresses, playing games as the metropolis bustles around them.