Monday, October 22, 2012

So Tall It Could Block out the Sun

Believe it or not, this is a story about a dance performance that Audrey and I attended Saturday night. But you’ll have to be patient. Some background is needed. . . .

When my brother and I stand next to each other, two things are clear: (1) We look a lot alike, and (2) he is much taller than I am. The first element I can attribute to our father; we both resemble him very much. The second element is one that has disappointed me since I was a child. When my brother, who is five years older than I, sprang up to over six feet tall during high school, I began dreaming that I too would reach such a height. Didn’t happen. Instead, I stopped off at just below 5’8”, perfect for looking my father directly in the eye, but coming up only to my brother’s nose. Alas. This, of course, gave me a handy excuse for not becoming a star at basketball, my favorite sport. A lousy jump shot and predilection for throwing errant no-look passes may also have limited my basketball success, but who is counting those?
Skippy and I with our mother. I'm the one with less hair.
So I have gone through life longing for extra height. I am almost ashamed to recall that period in the 1970s when stacked heels for men were the rage, and I indulged in some ugly brown monstrosities. And I can certainly understand the urge for young women today to wear those impossibly high heels that help them reach a whole new plane of vision and thought. Frankly, I’m a little jealous of their ability to soar. But I am stuck here at nearly 5’8” and fear that I am already starting to shrink as my age rises.

Am I getting to the dance performance yet? One more story first. . .

I once played a racquetball game during my high school years in Savannah against a very large and very athletic man named Bill Pickens. Pickens had been a small college All America basketball player at Georgia Southern University, not far from Savannah. He was 6’10” tall and was nearly as wide as a barn, at least in my estimation. There is an old expression about being tall enough to block out the sun. Bill Pickens could do that. (Parenthetically, I found a photograph with that title posted by someone in Australia . I am attaching it here.) 
(photo by Kim and Hayley)

Playing Pickens in racquetball was a little like trying to stay in the ring for three minutes with a boxing champion. He would place himself directly in the middle of the court and slam the ball against the front wall at whatever angle he chose. His opponent—me, in this instance—would have to figure out where the ball was heading by sound because you certainly couldn’t see it through the mountain of man strategically planted in front of you. I can’t recall if I scored a single point in that match. I can tell you that neither of us chose to play each other again. He probably considered me no challenge; I felt extremely challenged. And very small.

Flash ahead more than 45 years to last Saturday night. Audrey and I decided to attend an American Ballet Theater performance that featured an iconic piece choreographed by Twyla Tharp, one of Audrey’s favorite dance creators (and one that even I can enjoy). We had pretty good seats in the center of the rear mezzanine. Even better, up to one minute before the lights came down, the two seats in front of us were empty. That’s when a tiny woman and a man large enough to block out the sun began sliding into Row I. We were in Row J. “Oh, come on,” Audrey groaned more aloud than she planned, as the man turned to give her a look while taking his place directly in front of her. He seemed a little sheepish at being so impressively large, but what could he do about it? I gallantly offered to switch seats with Audrey, and she quickly accepted. It was amazing. As I sat back down, I realized that my head was at almost the exact height as the man's, and his seat was located at least 10 inches below mine! Plus he was wide, really wide.

From then on, the contest began. It was like playing racquetball against Bill Pickens again. I could move to my left and see a small piece of the stage on that side, perhaps one or two dancers. Or I could move to my right and see even less on that side. But the middle of the stage was off limits to me. Unfortunately, most dance companies utilize the middle part of the stage, and the ABT was no exception. What could I do? Assuming the position I often do at dance performances, I closed my eyes to concentrate on the music (and perhaps get in a little shut-eye). This time I had a real excuse. And the music by Philip Glass was exceptional; I am told that the dancing was, too. When the audience rose to their feet after the performance to offer a standing ovation, I too jumped up quickly. For a few seconds, as the large man slowly worked himself to a standing position, I could see the entire stage and the smiles of all of the excited and breathless dancers. They had put on a performance that had the entire theater buzzing. I had heard the buzz. The following morning, we discovered a video of an earlier performance of the piece on You Tube, and Audrey and I sat side by side to enjoy it. You know, it really was terrific, even if I had to see it second hand. 

Who knew this many dancers were on the stage together?
They say you should never look directly at an eclipse of the sun; it can damage your eyes. When the next eclipse occurs, I know whom I plan to be standing behind, just to be on the safe side. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Jewish Re-cycling

Part of the secret of Judaism’s longevity is that key aspects of the religion get renewed every year. In the past week, my synagogue (and others around the world) ended the two-week High Holiday season in a joyful (but not too raucous) celebration, called Simchat Torah, that included circling the synagogue with all of our Torahs and even dancing a little with the holy scrolls, completing the reading of the last book of the Torah, and then beginning the reading of the first book just minutes later. We took only a brief break after chanting about the death of Moses and praising our strength in finishing that story before turning our focus to the tale of Creation and the emergence of people in the world.
There are special ceremonies that accompany this Torah recycling process, just as there are special ceremonies involved in most religious practices—Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and others. And even if our faith (or at least MY faith) doesn’t always get renewed by these ceremonies, our memories do. Some of my strongest memories growing up are connected to the High Holiday ceremonies, and especially Simchat Torah. Marching and dancing around the synagogue, receiving candy from adults on each circuit, and, years later, enjoying several tastes of schnapps after being called up to the Torah to hear the last or first words read aloud. Imagine that…the first time I ever got tipsy was in shul! But it was a gentle drunk, filled with what I’d like to think was spiritualism. As I remember it, when I walked home from the synagogue that day, I wove a little from side to side, or maybe I just floated.

I felt a greater sense of renewal last Sunday, just five days after Simchat Torah, when I joined as a mentor to our 12-year-old students who are preparing for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs in the coming year. We held the first of a series of Sunday services in which the students learn how to put on key religious garments—the prayer shawl (tallit) and phylacteries (tefillin). The items are of ancient origin, and they have made Jews stand out for many centuries, even when standing out was not always a good thing. There are stories of religious martyrs walking to their deaths wrapped in these garments. But we were certainly not focusing on martyrs last Sunday morning. We were passing along ancient practices that had been passed to us by our elders. And it struck me that I was now an “elder.” At least, I’m sure that the students considered me pretty old.

All of the students were very cooperative as, for the first time, they said the special blessings and went through the unusual rituals involved in donning the religious items. And they do seem pretty strange at first, particularly those involving the phylacteries. You start by placing the box part of one of the phylacteries on your bicep and then wrapping the long leather strap attached to the box around your arm seven times. The wrapping has to be tight; too much slack will cause the box to dangle off your arm. Then you have to start over. We veterans joked that the strap should leave marks on your arm that might be apparent for several hours. So the kids bravely wound the leather tightly, so tightly that two young arms began turning purple. That was quickly remedied. Jews often talk and teach about suffering, but that should not come from the religious ceremonies—except perhaps circumcision, which is another matter altogether.

Once they placed a second box containing parchment scrolls with ancient prayers on their foreheads and completed another ritual involved in wrapping the leather arm strap around their hands, they were finally ready to begin the morning prayers, which I’m sure seemed pretty anticlimactic. Was all of this ritual necessary? The students certainly could have learned about the traditions virtually; there are literally dozens of You Tube videos showing how to put on tefillin. Here is a link to the one created by my rabbi and posted on our synagogue’s website:

Or they could have forgone the rituals, as most Jews do. But here were fathers sharing the experience hands-on with their children. (Fathers, because so few women of my generation were allowed to experience the rituals. Maybe in the next generation mothers will also become mentors in this area, too.) Will most of the students ever repeat these rituals after they complete this special "growing up" year? I have my doubts. And that disturbs me somewhat. The important thing is that they have had the experience and learned a little more about the traditions of a religion that was, in effect, foisted upon them at birth. In the coming years, they can make their own choices about what to keep in their practices and in their memories and what they will pass along to their children. We elders just want to help them make more educated choices.

So you see it really is a cycle. Nature renews in the spring; Judaism and school systems renew in the fall. It is all part of recognizing that we will reap only what we sow.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Ascent-u-ate the Positive

There is a risk to reuniting with people you have met on a biking vacation: Those people may be really into fitness and outdoor activity. The risk is exacerbated when the reunion takes place in an outdoor “wonderland” such as Lake George in upstate New York. When these outdoor fitness nuts see rocky wooded hills, especially near a pristine lake, they may be driven to climb the hills “to get the best views” of the lake. And they may drag those of us not as agile into climbing the hills with them, so that we too can experience the best views. Which is, of course, what happened this past weekend when we joined with three other couples we had met while biking in Holland last year for a reunion on one couple’s retreat on Lake George. The biking had been on flat land; the hiking, I feared, would not be.

I was enticed (and Audrey cheerfully agreed) to go on several ascents on which we started upward on a somewhat beaten trail, then climbed, then slithered through narrow rock crevices, then climbed over and around other rocks both stationary and loose (while trying to heed warnings to avoid piles of wet leaves or slick-looking rocks that might cause me to slip or roll Sisyphus-like back to the bottom of the hill to begin again). Our reward—as we were continually told—would be the amazing views we would have of the lake and of the property on which we were staying for the reunion. “Trust me, it will be well worth the effort,” Anne and Rich, our hosts, assured. But, just to be helpful, they passed out some adjustable walking sticks in case we needed assistance balancing, particularly on the way down. Ah, great, I thought, these people have a supply of walking sticks and probably some machetes if we need to blaze a new trail.

Describing these climbs later to our children, Audrey noted that they were pretty challenging for both of us: “Me because of my hurt knee and your dad because he’s your dad.” I guess that puts it all into proper perspective.  By the way, it did not help my psyche that, near the bottom of the trail we took the second day, there was a cemetery with 10-15 graves dating back to the late 1800s. I glanced at the headstones to make sure that none were of recent vintage and hoped that none involved climbing accidents. This isn’t the Alps, I told myself, as I planted my walking stick to begin the ascent.

The gravestones. . .coincidence or a bad omen?
 (photo from Jack Sobel)

I must say that what I lacked in grace I made up for in perseverance as we climbed. I gave out only a slight groan when we reached the first peak, and Anne announced that this was just the first stop; even better views awaited us a little farther up. She added that the next climbs would not be as difficult as the one we had just completed, but I only half believed her. So I chugged over more rocks and even resorted to the technique I sometimes use when we have a difficult uphill in cross-country skiing: I went down to all fours and crawled. I did experience one brief downhill roll but quickly got back to my feet and hoped no one else had noticed. Breathing just a little harder, I kept heading upward. 

The SAV on my hat stands for Savannah, not "save me."
The trail we traversed may have been beautiful, but I didn’t look up very much to admire it. Instead, I kept my nose to the grindstone, so to speak. At last the trail opened and we could rest and enjoy the views. I will admit that they were spectacular and were indeed a reward for the hard work. Then another thought hit me: We still had to get back down from here! I longed for a chairlift, even though I have assiduously avoided taking a lift downhill ever since an adventure many years ago in Colorado when we went skiing at 13,000 feet in mid-July. I still tremble at the memory of that descent.

The view from the top

I would like to believe that I was more graceful on the trip down. After all, I had a clear goal—to reach flat land so I could enjoy the view of autumnal trees from below rather than above.

Amazingly, when Anne and Rich suggested a new hike the next morning, I cheerfully joined the group. “This one is shorter than yesterday’s,” Anne remarked. The she added something about comparative steepness that I don’t think I heard right. So with walking stick in hand I strode toward what some would call a simple hill and I regarded as my own personal Mount Everest. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Gorgeous (Lake) George

A number of years ago, when I was managing communications for the American Society of Corporate Secretaries, I attended a business meeting in early October at Lake George. I can vividly remember coming over a hill as I approached the lake. When I reached the top, on my left was a steep wooded hill ablaze in fall color. Just ahead was a sun-speckled blue lake. The scene was so amazing that I had to pull over to the shoulder of the road and stop to admire it. Fall may be exciting in other parts of the country, but I don’t think you can top the Northeast. And Lake George has to be among the best places to be in early October.

Luckily, that is where we were this past weekend. We were invited to a special reunion of four families who had biked and barged together in the Netherlands in 2011. We had spent only a week with the other three couples in Holland, but it was a pretty intense experience, and we developed a warm relationship. So when Anne and Rich offered to host the reunion at their house on Lake George, we were thrilled to join in.

This is no ordinary house, by the way, even by Lake George standards. Anne and Rich had to negotiate for three years to purchase the property that juts out as a peninsula onto the lake. Previously, this piece of land had not changed ownership since the late 1800s. Land does not ordinarily change hands quickly or easily along this part of Lake George. We did hear one amusing story about how the deed to a section of the neighboring property was garnered many years ago from its previous owner—a noted reprobate— following a week of drinking and bonding with a Dutch “interloper.” The reprobate’s family, who still held much of the surrounding property, didn’t talk to the interloper and his family for many years following what they regarded as an act of theft.

But, of course, I am digressing.

Once Anne and Rich bought the property, they proceeded to tear down the decaying residence that had sat empty upon it for an entire generation. One younger neighbor, who came to visit over the weekend, noted that, as a child, she had often played in the “haunted” house against her parents’ orders. The floors were in bad shape, and large sections of the roof were missing. A long building process began, and the result was an amazing wood and stone structure that can comfortably sleep lots of people in several bedrooms, a large bunk-bedded loft, and an adjoining structure. The six of us visitors had no trouble finding great accommodations.

The Lake George house from ground level

and from an overlooking peak

But the real star of the property and the weekend was nature at autumn time and how it took hold of us. There was the lake that surrounded the property on three sides. The fourth side opened onto a meadow and then to a series of wooded rocky hills that were in their fall glory. (I’ll talk more about those “damned” hills in tomorrow’s post.) The lake was a little chilly for swimming but welcomed boaters and kayakers who are less apt to capsize than I (which is, of course, another story). The water was blue and crystal clear, and the lapping of waves onto the rocks along the shore was almost hypnotic. It would be hard to find anything wrong with our weekend home. And we didn’t.

Amid all of this beauty, we had the chance to share our pictures and stories of Holland, catch up on what we and our various children have been doing, and eat far too much. Audrey said I seemed to be in my element over the weekend, as the four males, in particular, pounded each other with puns of various degrees of “groan-ability.” That is often how aging males compete with each other, and it sure beats fisticuffs.

So we completed the first ritual of fall by going leaf watching in the supreme arena of the sport. In three weeks, we will experience ritual number two—picking out some of the ugliest and tastiest turnips in the world at the annual Gilfeather Turnip Festival in Wardsboro, Vermont. I will proudly don one of my two festival t-shirts (which I wear proudly everywhere I travel, even in Holland) and schmooze up several farmers eager to sell me their wares. 

The turnips will later find their way into glorious soups and mashes. At least I will consider them glorious. It is fall in the Northeast. Even a Southern boy can appreciate how special that is!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Cancer Can Be a Lonely Disease

At my cousin’s birthday party in Washington last week, I got to spend some time with Susie, an old friend from Savannah. After sharing childhood memories and a quick synopsis of family news, our conversation turned to health—which is pretty often the case with those of us over 60. Susie’s health has not been good. She is suffering from multiple myeloma, a cancer that affects the red blood cells and bone marrow. She has had a rough time, and continues on oral chemotherapy accompanied by steroids. The disease has forced her to quit her job as a synagogue administrator to focus on getting well, or at least on trying to build up her health. When I noted my own experience with chemo and steroids, she looked amazed. “You’ve had cancer?” she asked in a tone of surprise. I was a little surprised myself that she hadn’t known about my nearly 10-year-old bout with lymphoma. Of course, I had never talked directly to her about it. I just figured the news would have passed along the Savannah Jewish network and reached her.  

This got me thinking about the solitary nature of cancer. Millions of Americans are going through cancer or have experienced the disease. But no one really wants to talk about it. The word is scary. So we often use euphemisms when we refer to it. An excellent Showtime television show starring Laura Linney is called “The Big C.” And sometimes we don’t want to think about it. When I was going through chemo in 2003 and shaved off my thinning hair before it all fell out, a clueless colleague in my office said, “I think it’s great that you cut your hair off; bald is a good look for you. (Trust me, it wasn’t – as you can see below.)

You could go blind from the reflection off of that dome

Because we know how others feel about cancer, people going through the disease don’t tend to talk about it too much. I would discuss my experiences only through anecdotes that I tried to make as entertaining as possible. Like the time Amanda made me a CD mix, the first three songs of which were Bob Marley”s “Every Little Thing Gonna Be Alright,”  The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” and Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young.” When Brett questioned the third selection, Amanda said, “But Daddy really likes Billy Joel.” My friend Steven Griffel suggested that maybe she was indicating that I wasn’t that good and therefore wouldn’t be risking an early end. Either explanation works for me.

The solitary nature of cancer gets some emphasis even in a very busy cancer center, such as the one I still go to at Hackensack Hospital (though only once a year now). We are moved efficiently through our blood work and weigh-in processes, one at a time. And we seldom look at the other patients in the waiting room with us. Our minds are on our own issues and vital signs. Out of the corner of my eye, I could spot the people who looked to be in far worse condition than I, but I didn’t really want to think about them. This was MY cancer.

(Not coincidentally, the cancer center has moved into a new building since I started my treatment. This one is much larger and quieter and more private. Patients don’t really confront too many others. Do we really want to?)

I feel guilty that I seldom focused on my children’s feelings when I was going through chemo. Were they worried, frightened, disturbed? I know that the caring fathers on TV shows would have sat down with the children for soul-searching discussions. We never went through those in my family. I was focused mostly on me. Audrey and I didn’t talk about it too much either. Luckily, I didn’t have a lot of nausea or negative reactions to the chemo. And I was always at work the Monday following my Friday chemo session. So we went along as if nothing was amiss (though the 800-pound gorilla was in the room to be sure). When I went through a blip, and the chemo seemed to have not been successful (and a bone marrow transplant might have been the next step), Audrey freaked out a little bit. She canceled a family gathering in Vermont, though I thought it should still go on. Since I continued to be in denial about the whole thing, I wasn’t that worried. Subsequent tests revealed that the “hot spot” that the PT Scan found in my abdomen was just a false positive, so my health was indeed on the mend. Audrey’s blood pressure returned to normal, and we could keep the cancer talk down to a minimum again.

It has now been nearly 10 years since my last chemo session. My oncologist says that I will graduate from his “class” next June and won’t have to see him again. I was tempted to add an “unless” to that last sentence, but I have decided not to do that. Instead, I plan to write some more anecdotes about the time in the distant past that I had cancer. Or I may share some symptoms with Susie and try not to top her stories with ones of my own. Instead, I’ll try to keep quiet and just listen to her—if she really wants to share.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Aging as Gracefully as Possible

In her waning years, my wife’s grandmother, Omi, would often say, “It’s no fun to grow old.” This was a woman who, until her middle 80s, worked as an inspector in the garment district. She would put on mostly black clothing and her black “old lady” shoes and take the subway downtown every day. On her way back home, she would stop on 181st Street to buy bargain-priced fruit and vegetables, the type that had only about a day’s shelf life left.

Her daughter, my wife’s mother, lived until she was 93 and was strong and independent and living on her own until the day she literally dropped dead while walking to our car after a birthday celebration for my daughter. These women taught us how to grow old gracefully, or as gracefully as possible. I hope we can follow their lessons.

Audrey's mom on her 91st birthday, alone

and with Audrey

This weekend, we had more occasion to think about the aging process, for several good reasons and a few not-so-good ones. We traveled to Washington for a surprise 60th birthday for our cousin Paula. It was a wonderful party and a big surprise. Paula moves in several different professional and social circles, all of which were well represented at the birthday, along with many of us family members. We ate and talked, touched base with cousins and old and new friends, and watched an endless loop of slides showing Paula and her children growing from their infancy to adulthood. Sure we complained about our aging knees and backs, but mostly we were celebrating growing older.

The birthday party was an interesting counterpoint to the discussion we had earlier that afternoon. The trip to Washington was also an opportunity for us to reunite with Audrey’s former classmate and close friend Terry and her husband Tom. Both are now retired after many years working for the federal government (FEMA in Terry’s case, and the Smithsonian Library in Tom’s case). They are currently going through a lot of stress as Terry’s mother—widowed in the past year after more than 65 years of marriage—goes through a terrible period of aging. Her hip is dislocated and cannot be repaired because she is too frail for any operation. She also recently fell and broke her wrist. Her eyesight is poor, and her mobility is pretty awkward. All of which means that Terry and her sister Nancy need to tend to their mother daily and even several times daily. Tending involves a lot of personal cleaning that, I am sure, is embarrassing to both the giver and the givee. They are being forced to confront a decision that more and more families face as our nation ages—how to provide the best care for an elderly parent. In some cases, this means looking outside the family for help.

Audrey and I have been very lucky on this front. As I noted above, Audrey’s mother went out the way she always wished. She was healthy until almost her final day, and she died without suffering and with her family nearby. My mother, who is approaching her 93rd birthday, has had some health issues in the past few years involving poor blood circulation and declining eyesight. Circumstances forced her to move temporarily and then permanently into an assisted living facility about nine months ago.

Luckily for the aged and for their family members, assisted living facilities today bear little resemblance to the nursing homes we dreaded in past generations (in part, because today’s elderly seem, thankfully, not as old as old people used to be.) This place, which was built and is run by the wife of our Rabbi in Savannah, is light and cheerful, and the staff seem just as cheerful and caring. My mother has the inclination and the facilities (as well as the facility) to cook some meals for herself, principally breakfast. In this way, she can get up when she wants each day and dine in the close company of her cousin and next-door neighbor Sara. The two of them can also avoid the community dining hall for at least one meal a day. While Sara doesn’t complain too much about the food, my mother does. They serve chicken about 17 times a week, she recently noted, and how can anyone screw up rice so badly!

The food is not her biggest complaint. Her real issue is with the bathroom floor tile in her room that she refuses to believe was installed just before she moved in. “It is filthy,” she insists and often asks (demands) that the cleaning crew mop it a second or third time. When we point out that her eyesight is not too good, she notes that it s good enough to spot the dirt hiding in plain sight in the corners of the room. “I want them to put in a rug over the floor,” she recently announced. “I’ve always had rugs in my bathroom, and this floor belongs in a barn!”

When I told this story to my cousin Richard at the birthday party we attended Saturday night, he said, “It’s good to see that Aunt Bea is still herself.”

My mom with Brett and Amanda

Cooking a last batch of jelly in her old house
I certainly hope that Audrey and I, too, will still be ourselves later in life. Though Audrey might hope for me to make a few needed changes by then. I’m sure she is making a list of those changes and will be only too happy to share them with me.

So this was a weekend for looking backward with joy and forward with a little trepidation. If may not be good to grow old, but it is fine to age with as much grace as possible. That’s my resolution for the New Year.