Vulnerable Enough to Care

Once we read this morning’s news about the mass shooting in Las Vegas, we all had a choice to make:

sukkah.pngGo out into the world.  Or go back to bed.

On the one hand, we would have been more than justified in going back to bed, pulling the blankets over our heads, and saying: “This world is just too much for me.”

But we have people who depend on us. Families. Students. Colleagues. Friends.

And so we put down our iPhones, closed our laptops, and headed out into the world. But there was still another less-obvious choice we had to make. To care or not to care.

Obviously, we care. Obviously, we care that today was the worst mass shooting in modern US history. Obviously, this means something to us.

But do we feel it? Do we care it in the way we would care it if we’d never heard of a mass shooting? If we weren’t exposed to a mass shooting nearly every day of the year? Not to mention terrorism.  Not to mention devastating hurricanes. Not to mention catastrophic earthquakes. 

Do we care about each one? Can we? Can we really feel the loss and the devastation? And if we do, how can we live? How can we enjoy anything when there’s suffering like this in the world?

Today, I found myself between the Scylla of “how can I afford to open my heart to this suffering” …and the Charybdis of  “how can I enjoy anything, ever again?” During lunch, I flipped through the news and read an update about the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Burma. It made me deeply sad, and I sat there for a while, spoon paused between bowl and lips, and wondered: is there is ever an acceptable time, amongst all this suffering, to eat a bowl of soup?

We are two days away from the Jewish holiday, Sukkot. It falls mere days after the austere Yom Kippur, and is referred to as zman simchateinu — the time of our joy. How can we be joyful when, as Yom Kippur reminds us, there is but a thin line between life and death? How can we be joyful when the world is so full of suffering?

One central element of sukkot is the sukkah, the hut which Jews traditionally build for sukkot. Its roof must be made of thatched plants – thick enough to provide shade, but sparse enough to let in the starlight and the rain. It is a symbol, he said, of our precarious posture in this world, in which we must maintain a sense of safety and security on the one hand – so necessary to carry on, to find any meaning in life, to venture out of bed each day — and yet, we must experience the reality of the vulnerability of our human existence, never taking it for granted. Indeed, all of life is a sukkah – sturdy and yet precarious. The sun will rise tomorrow, and yet, tomorrow is truly unknown.

So too, the sukkah reminds us that we need to take shelter from the hard realities of the world. We need to protect ourselves from spiraling into the Scylla of paralyzing heartbreak. And yet, we must also guard ourselves against the Charybdis of shutting out the world. For just as the roof of the succah must be open to the elements, a succah is required to have a door. And so we do we. The door to our hearts cannot close.

We must feel. We must give. We must act. We must love.

And we cannot shut down, give up, or close off: from each other. From the world.



How to Shrink a Wool Sweater (Or How to Spend a Labor Day)

Sometimes, it’s hard to know what to do with a day off.

I just completed my first five-day week of the school year, and come Friday, I was exhausted. Then, global-warming apocalypse hit the Bay Area and I spent 48 hours sitting in front of a fan, wearing a damp t-shirt.

By the time Labor Day came around, I was in no mood to do the usual labor-day things: drinking beer in the park, hiking under the Redwoods, lounging on the beach.

Way too drained.

I decided to do the one thing that is perfect for a day off: shrinking a sweater, obviously.


It’s hard to see how baggy it is, but trust me – I wouldn’t lie about such things.

nice pattern

Gorgeous color and beautiful quality. Worth trying to make it work.

In spring, I found a great wool/cashmere sweater-vest for just a couple of bucks on eBay, and once it arrived, I found that it fit me like a floppy medium. I prefer a sweater-vest to fit slimly, to layer cleanly under a blazer. I did some research online about whether a sweater can be shrunk, and after reading the received Lifehacker wisdom (and making the mistake of “reading the comments”), consulting a co-worker who insisted I was about to create a “barbie-sweater” and texting with my mother-in-law for advice, I decided to conduct the experiment, even if I might eff-up the sweater in the process.

inside outStep 1: turn it inside out.

Supposedly, this will reduce color bleed.

Step 2: Put it in a pillow case.

To keep the evil elves away.

poor little guy (spot the detergent)

You’ve heard of “Where’s Waldo?” This is “Spot the Bottle of Detergent.” Super fun for all ages.

Step 3. Look frantically around for your detergent. 

I recommend doing the sweater in a load of laundry so as not to waste water on a vanity project. I also recommend carrying the detergent bottle IN the laundry bag to the laundromat so that when you dump the laundry into the machine, you can dump the bottle of detergent INTO the machine with the rest of the laundry, so you can’t find it anywhere. Then, I recommend that you text frantically with your significant other: “IS IT IN THE HALLWAY” and “I TRIED THE HALLWAY ALREADY” and that sort of thing.

Then, find it in the laundry machine.

Step 4:  HOT water and let ‘er rip. 


Godspeed to you, gentle sweater, and good luck.

I felt guilty, at this point, like I was consigning an innocent sweater to certain doom.

Step 5: Stand in line for 45 minutes for a croissant.

Step 6: Nom.

Step 7: Return to Laundromat and put sweater in drying for 25 minutes, checking every six minutes.


Step 8: Rescue and apply sweater to body.

The results: 

While the sweater still doesn’t fit “slim,” it has dropped about a size, and it is definitely not ruined. It’s hard to tell from the photo, but yes – it worked!


Have a sweater that’s too big?

Wait until next Labor Day, and GO FOR IT!

Saying Goodbye: Going all the way through with it

byebye-scooterLast week, I said goodbye to something I loved: my 2001 Aprillia Scarabeo scooter. I bought it about six years and 10,000 miles ago. I have had many adventures on it. It brought me to work and home each day, it took me to Fort Bragg on a somewhat absurd solo adventure, and it survived a couple of vandalism episodes: one, ruining the ignition, one ruining the trunk lock. Year after year, it was my stalwart riding companion.

Until last December. One weekday morning, I came outside to discover it was gone. By the time the police recovered it, four days later, it had cracks in every body panel, the thief had tampered with the wiring, and one turning signal was smashed, dangling from a couple of wires.

An insurance adjuster came to review to damage and he declared it a “total loss.” This means that though it still ran beautifully (and would cheerfully start for anyone who pushed the button on the hotwired motor), insurance wouldn’t pay me anything to repair it. Rather, I was offered a generous check and that afternoon, a truck pulled up to take the scooter away for salvage.


Selfie with scooter.

This was in the middle of a busy day at work. I suppose the rational thing would have been to leave the scooter with the man to load on his truck. I could’ve gone inside, gone about my day, moved on. But that’s not what I did. Instead, I stood on the sidewalk and watched the man winch my scooter down with cables, secure the cracked panels with duct tape, and run metal hooks through the spokes of the wheels. Then I stood there as it started to rain, I waited while he climbed in the driver’s seat and made twenty minutes of phone calls. I continued to stand there as he started the diesel engine and drove two long city blocks.

I watched my scooter, green-grey, the color of wasabi, rolling away from me, down the street on the back of a truck — turn the corner, and disappear forever.

Once inside, the school security guards had a field day with me. They’d watched the whole thing on camera. And I’m sure to the outside observer, it looked ridiculous. Standing in the rain for twenty minutes, just to see my scooter go?

We had a good laugh, I didn’t mind – but what they didn’t know is that I have a particular history with this sort of thing.

Maggie was the dog I grew up with, a collie – very gentle, not very smart, barked a lot. The summer after my junior year of college, it was time to put Maggie to sleep. She was having trouble doing basically everything a dog is supposed to do: seeing, walking, eating, none of her basic doggie functions were functioning any longer, and my mother, who loves her pets deeply, loaded Maggie in the back of the mini-van and off we went to the vet.

Once inside, my mother was overcome with grief and I volunteered to bring Maggie behind the closed door to the room she would enter but never leave. My mother got down low, hugged and kissed Maggie goodbye, and I lead the dog away to a room where the vet and I lifted her frail frame onto a stainless steel table.

The vet prepared his syringe, and rather than turn away, I laid my hands on Maggie. I imagined her soul, her little doggie soul, prying loose from her mortal coil, floating up to heaven. It wasn’t a totally smooth process. Her muscles convulsed and she shivered and the vet started telling me in a stern voice not to worry – but I blocked him out. I laid my hands on her. I felt her. I concentrated. I imagined it to be my responsibility to be her boatman, ferrying her across the turbulent river into gentle darkness. A very long ten seconds passed and she was still.


Having a little trouble saying goodbye to my beloved, beat-up sofa.

I have not always been so courageous with my goodbyes. I regret each failed opportunity to be present for transformation.

On the day that 1-800-GOT-JUNK came to haul away my beloved, beat-up sofa, my napping spot since I was a child, gifted to me by my parents and a key fixture in every apartment I’ve lived in my adult life, I made sure I was at work. I came home and it was gone.

On the day my dear friend and roommate loaded his U-Haul to move to New York, I was hiding in a Boston cafe with my laptop. When I came home, he was gone.

And about seven years ago, on the last day of my relationship with a woman I was engaged to, after we called it quits and decided to go separate ways, the day she moved her stuff to a friend’s house down the street, I arranged to be in Tuscon for the weekend. When I came home, she was gone.

I’ll admit, the sofa incident is probably a case of too-much-sentimentality (someday I’ll tell you about how I still own my first-ever laptop, my first pair of Doc Martens, and a red cup from the first college party I ever went to). But the second and third situation I still regret. By skipping town during two necessary but painful moments, I cheated myself, my roommate, and my ex out of much-needed closure. My roommate and I eventually talked about it and I apologized. But when it came to ending things with the woman I’d been with for four years, someone I’d been engaged to and planned for a future with, I was neither literally nor figuratively present for her transition out of the home we shared. I thought it would save me from dealing with the pain of the moment, but in reality, it only made it worse; she was gone, but the pain was waiting for me when I came back.

I never want to make that mistake again. I want to feel my feelings deeply – the good and the bad. I don’t want to be “out of town” when reality is happening, even painful reality, and I’ve taken steps to correct this.

Two years ago, my Uncle David, the oldest member of my family, after a long fight with organ failure was near death. I had the chance to call him and say goodbye. That afternoon, I went into an empty classroom, set up Skype, and called my Uncle David. We talked for about twenty minutes. I rehashed a funny story; I was fourteen years old, helping him sell toys at a rural flea market. Spur-of-the-moment, I bought a black rabbit. I realized after the fact that this was a terrible idea and pretended to be allergic. I begged my uncle to help me return the rabbit for a refund. Now, nearly thirty years later, he remembered, and that formed the core of our last conversation. After the funny story was over, it came time to say goodbye, and we did so in the only words that can do such I thing: he said to have a great life. I told him I loved him, he told me he loved me, and we said goodbye and I hung up the phone.

I videotaped the whole call. I wanted to have it. I like to have small pieces of gone-things. I have a 10 inch piece of fabric from a childhood blanket. I have a visitor’s pass from the nature preserve where I got my first kiss. I have 30 seconds of video, just me crying, following my call with Uncle David. I couldn’t be with him in the hospital in Milwaukee, but I was with him on the phone. My sadness, after the call, was part of an experience I needed. I needed it in order to be ready for another phone call, 24 hours later, when I learned that he was dead. (I’ve written about this experience, by the way, in my post: “Grieving in the Age of the Selfie”).

Being present in moments of grief, leaning into the sadness is, I think, a very Jewish idea. In Hebrew, a funeral is called a “Halvayah,” meaning “to accompany.” The family accompanies the closed casket to the grave and participates in burying the loved one, each family member shoveling dirt, an act of kindness to the body, to help it on its way, to rejoin the earth. In Jerusalem, no casket is used: a body is simply wrapped in a shroud and lowered into the earth.

There is no escaping the reality of what is happening.


My parents, helping me into my “kittel,” a kind of ceremonial robe for saying goodbye to your single self. You wear the same kittel on Yom Kippur to say goodbye to your old, flawed self, to make room for renewed commitments. And, indeed, you wear it after you die.

Not every goodbye is so sad. Last summer,  on the happiest day of my life, under the chuppah, I laughed and I cried. I laughed because I couldn’t believe the waterfall of joy pouring into my bride-to-be and me from all around, and cried because of the enormity. I was saying goodbye to “single-me” whom I have known all my life. I really loved single-me, and yet, single-me was ready to go… to go to the place all beloved things go when they go forever. Somewhere far overhead. Somewhere deep inside.

Whether saying goodbye to a scooter, a family member, a dog, or your former self, I think doing it “all in” is important: for the past, for the present and the future. For the past, because it gives honor to history. For the present because that’s the only time when we can make choices. And for the future, because saying goodbye properly allows us to pave a path towards a life where we are okay. Where we can remember fondly. Where we can fall in love again.

Where we can move on.

All this is on my mind because last week, I said goodbye to a machine, a machine I loved. And if a machine could love, I feel like this one did. It was glad that I didn’t send it to scooter heaven without a proper goodbye. And that I took it for a final ride on its last day, cracks and duct-tape and all, around and around and around the school’s parking lot in the rain.

It would be glad that, like I did with Maggie, I laid my own bare hands upon it in our final moments together. I wheeled it up the ramp myself, I held to keep it from falling it as the man winched it down. I didn’t turn my back on it.

I watched it go.


Scootius Maximus: 2001-2017


It’s Not Enough to be Not-Islamophobic

This isn’t a good time to be a Muslim taxi driver in America.

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance has expressed fears of increased attacks on Muslim drivers. As it is, taxi workers are 20 times more likely to be killed on the job. Now, they fear, Trump’s attempt to ban refugees from Muslim nations will likely incite additional violence against Muslim drivers. This stands to reason, as hate crimes against Muslims have already surged in the past year.  Meanwhile, Trump’s expressed intent to grant priority to Christian refugees sends an untrue message: that Islam is inherently dangerous, and Christianity is inherently safe.

This idea, which has become commonplace, is terribly dangerous: for Muslim citizens and for the future of our country.

I’m reminded of one opinion piece, written after the last year’s bombing in Brussels; I’m less concerned about the piece itself and very concerned about the fact that it was shared almost 63,000 times on Facebook alone. Search for the same article on Twitter, and you’ll find Islamophobes retweeting it to further their Islamophobic agenda–an agenda that hides, like Trump’s executive orders, behind the notion that Christianity is safer or more peaceful than Islam.

In this piece, Nabeel Quereshi states that the Quran played a role in the March 2016 Belgian terrorism attack, and more generally, in the cultivation of fundamentalist terrorism:

“…While ISIL may lure youth through a variety of methods, it radicalizes them primarily by urging them to follow the literal teachings of the Quran…interpreted consistently and in light of the violent trajectory of early Islam. As long as the Islamic world focuses on its foundational texts, we will continue to see violent jihadi movements.” []

Quereshi concludes that the only way to combat the theological seduction that ISIL uses to conscript youth into its terrorist army is to promote Christian theology:

“I suggest that sharing alternative worldviews with Muslims is one of the best methods to address radicalization.  Indeed, this is what happened to me. As I faced the reality of the violent traditions of Islam, I had a Christian friend who suggested that Islam did not have to be my only choice and that there were excellent reasons to accept the [Christian] gospel.”

It is human nature to look for explanations following terrifying events. Many people are happy to offer confused and scared Americans a simple calculation: blame the Book. And often, this works. Because most Americans, even well-meaning Americans, do not have enough exposure to Islam or Muslim people to know how to challenge or contextualize Islamophobic sentiments. Many will read and re-tweet the conclusion, that Christianity is inherently safe and Islam is inherently dangerous, thus perpetuating Islamophobia. And as evidenced by the current state of affairs, Islamophobia translates into oppression and injustices against Muslims, not to mention the furthering of xenophobia in general.

To be clear, the New and Old Testaments–the core books in Christianity and Judaism–are no more inherently peaceful than the Quran. The New Testament could be seen as responsible for inspiring the Crusades, which killed 1-3 million people over two hundred years.  It could be seen as responsible for tens of thousands burned at the stake during the Spanish Inquisition. It could be seen as responsible for the enslavement and cultural genocide of native colonies in the New World. Likewise, consider this line from the Old Testament (AKA the Hebrew Bible): “Thus says the LORD…go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys” (Samuel 15:3). Pretty bad, right? The Bible contains this verse, and dozens like it, yet, we know better than to suggest that the Bible has inspired inherently violent religions, or ban from our borders those who cherish it.

On the other hand, like the Bible, the Quran also contains messages about peace and tolerance:

  • “There is no compulsion where the religion is concerned.” (Holy Quran: 2/ 256)
  • “We have appointed a law and a practice for every one of you. Had God willed, He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you. So compete with each other in doing good. Every one of you will return to God and He will inform you regarding the things about which you differed.” (Surat al-Ma’ida, 48)
  • “To you be your religion, and to me be mine.” Quran (109:6)

Sadly, Islamophobes attempt to debate the meaning of these verses, insisting that they are misunderstood and out of context. Exactly my point. If the goal is to prove or disprove the peacefulness of a religion through close text analysis, then no religion comes out ahead. Ultimately, one cannot assess any religion based on close text analysis, devoid of real human contact, and I say this as a scholar of the Torah. This is not a time to scrutinize books and point fingers.

We cannot blame any one text or religion for violence in the modern world, nor religion as a whole; 40 million deaths in Mao era China, and 20 million deaths in Stalin-era  Soviet Union prove that humans will gladly kill each other for non-religious ideologies. Likewise, we cannot blame the Torah, revered by 14.2 million Jews. We cannot blame the New Testament, with 2.2 billion adherents, nearly a third of all the people on Earth. And we cannot blame the Quran, with 1.6 billion Muslims in the world as of 2010. I urge that we blame neither books nor religion for man’s inhumanity to man. Instead of worrying about whether the text of the Quran (or the Bible or the Torah) is peaceful or violent, cruel or merciful, we must think of all religion like any major discovery of humankind, from the wheel to the splitting of the atom, or like humanity itself: containing both the potential for good and for bad–providing opportunities and challenges for us to make the world a better place for the next generation.

As a teacher of Torah and Comparative Religion, I see it as my job not to propagate the idea of my own religion’s superiority, but rather, to understand who we are, and just as importantly, to make room for understanding others. I urge my students not to read and consume verses of the Quran out of context, especially when quoted by people with an agenda to sow suspicion, xenophobia, and fear, but rather, to learn from real people, Muslims who love their religion and culture, exactly the way we love ours. A great way for anyone to start is to watch Ameena Jandali’s videos: on everything from What is Islam to Islam and Terrorism.  Take a course at a community college. Find an event that promotes real contact, such as this “We Love Our Muslim Neighbors” event, and show up.

These days, it’s not enough to be “not Islamophobic.”  We must be allies. We must be truly anti-Islamophobic. And in order to be anti-Islamophobic, we cannot be Islam-ignorant.


How To Apologize Like You Mean It

forgiveEvery year, the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur comes around and gives us the opportunity to apologize to people we have harmed. For those of us who observe Yom Kippur, it forces us to think deeply about the ups and downs of interpersonal repair. For those of us who don’t celebrate Yom Kippur, it can be like being in Las Vegas during a NASCAR championship: you can enjoy the experience vicariously. Just swap out hordes of NASCAR fans and exhaust fumes for ornery, hypoglycemic Jews.

Teshuva is the main thing we Yom Kippur enthusiasts do on the 10th day of the Jewish month of Tishrei. Teshuva is usually translated as “repentance,”(though yuck – hate that word). And every year, I hear someone quote the medieval Spanish Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon’s formula for “doing teshuva.”

Step 1: Admit how you effed up. (Mishneh Torah 1:1).

Step 2: Show that you’re sorry, and take whatever actions you need to make sure you don’t eff up again. (Mishneh Torah 2:2) and fix whatever damage you’ve caused (Mishneh Torah 2:9).

Step 3: Don’t eff up again if you’re ever in the same position in the future. (Mishneh Torah 2:1).

On the one hand, this is great stuff. I wish people did this more often. I should do this more often.

On the other hand, the simplicity of these steps reminds me a bit of “Dick in a Box.” Step 1, Step 2, Step 3, and “That’s the way you doooo it.”

dickboxThe Dick-in-a-Box Sorry System is great for situations where the “wrong” is totally clear: for any version of stepping on someone’s foot.

“One. I’m sorry I stepped on your foot. Two. I will keep an eye out for your feet. Three. Here’s a new pair of shoes. Teshuva! That’s the way you doooo it.”

And being married, I see that daily “teshuva” is an integral part of sharing a home and a life with someone. Through teshuva, I have learned to close the cabinet doors, to clean the cat’s litter box without being asked to, and to communicate when I will be home later than I’d expected.

And if we’re lucky, that type of apologizing is good for, say, 95% of the conflicts that arise in a given year, whether at home or at work or with friends. But for that other 5%, Yom Kippur forces us to confront the fact that any real conflict – certainly one which has lingered in our minds for months – is likely to be the result of a messed up relationship system. And when the relationship is effed up, “apologizing for harm” and “promising not to do it again” strikes me as a serious oversimplification. And any approach to a complex problem with an over-simplified solution will be disappointing. Sometimes dangerous.

An example: someone has mistreated you regularly. Then they come to you and ask for forgiveness for “any time they might have harmed you.” Their Dick-in-a-Box apology doesn’t allow for you to express the fact that the relationship is unbalanced and toxic. It puts you in a situation of disempowerment, like those awkward scenes in rom-coms where the evil Alpha Male, astride a white horse, “asks” the female lead to marry him while the whole kingdom (and his armed guards) watch; she has no real agency. And Yom Kippur lurking around the corner adds that whole “kingdom watching” element. It’s not fair.

Forgiveness is not a right. And an apology is not sufficient.

The flip side, though, is also true: when apologizing to someone, never simply apologize for “anything you might have done” (gah!) and don’t just name the thing (“I’m sorry for stepping on your shoes”).

Rather: and here’s the toughest thing of all. If you want to apologize, approach someone with the desire to make things better, and ask if they’d like to speak first. Don’t see it as an opportunity to harvest an apology–see it as the chance to learn something.

We don’t live in a world of sin and repentance; rather, we live in a world of complex, competing needs with many, many unfortunate consequences as we try to meet our needs. For those of us who are celebrating Yom Kippur tomorrow night, and for those of us who are not, may we choose our approach to apologies not with a goal in mind, but with the desire to understand. With the willingness to be told the Truth.

And that’s the way you dooooo it.


Three things I learned on my wedding day.


Even tiny details: burned in my memory.

People told me: “It’ll go by in a blur. Take time to breathe and enjoy it.”

I received a ton of advice leading up to my wedding day, but this was repeated so often, I began to take it as gospel.

As it turns out, my wedding was not a blur. Rather, it was like a dream – not the fleeting kind, leaving you with an impression of flying or hiding,  but the kind where you are right there, in fourth grade again, and you can smell the chalk boards, you can hear the minute hand, the bell, the teacher shouting final homework instructions, the surge through the door – the scramble to the playground — so many details it seems to take all eight hours of the night.

In the weeks after the wedding, I filled over forty pages of my journal with images, thoughts, and recollections. That’s a lot of pages, a lot of details. More elusive, however, has been the “mileage” of the experience.

Experiences vs. “Mileage”


Losing myself in a food experience.

As naive college freshmen, my best friend and I used to covet “mileage” – which to us, was some blend of experience and the perspective one earns by having the experience.

Just to clarify, you need not question my inability to enjoy life in the moment. When I’m eating something delicious, conversation ceases as I float away to the Land of Yum.  I experience things deeply and powerfully, and I’m grateful for that. But without mileage, and a little bit of distance, I believe there is no wisdom.

For example, I once had a hilarious experience, laying on the rain-soaked concrete, helping a Dutch guy photograph soccer figurines for an art project).


So…this happened.

And I cherish that memory. He was a really cool guy. But more important to my quality of life was the mileage I gained after the experience.


Said otherwise: “There’s no place like home.”

It occurred to me, once I was back at home, sitting with a friend at a local pizza place, that taking turns spilling your guts about the latest drama in your lives is one of the best things that life has to offer.


Speaking of Big-Wheels, my brother is on the Big Wheel. I’m on the much cooler Harley. Circa 1977.

My hard-earned mileage has been instrumental in getting my chronic FOMS (Fear Of Missing Something) a bit more under control. While the experience of being crushed by hundreds of people in the alleged “best night-club in Europe” has waned in my memory, the mileage remains forever: nothing is ever as good as the hype. With that in mind,  I won’t get quite as bent out of shape if I miss the much-hyped San Francisco Grown-Up Big Wheel Race.

Why should my own wedding not be a source of mileage? Sure, it blew every experience of my life away: more emotional than


Berlin’s got nothin’ on THIS dance floor!

the marriage proposal, more grand than my first visit to the Grand Canyon, more psychedelic than any Phish concert, and with permanent, existential implications, unlike any roller-coaster I have ridden. But that doesn’t mean the experience can’t be, shouldn’t be an opportunity for mileage.

One step further, because of the intensity and enormity of the experience, I tend to believe that whatever I learned on that day is compounded in its truth – it is eternal wisdom for my lifetime.

Mile 1: Energy Spent Worrying is Wasted


Nothing went wrong, and everything went right.

Heading into the wedding, I was warned: you have to expect and accept that something is going to go wrong.

This struck me as sound advice, but it also put lots of crazy-thinking in my head. Late at night, I considered various disastrous scenarios:

  • The Rabbi could be delayed – or his flight could be cancelled.
  • A key friend or family member might be unable to make it due to sudden illness.
  • A wine barrel will certainly explode and cover me in 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon.
  • Maybe I will forgetting the ketubah (marriage contract) in San Francisco, and not realize it until 10 minutes before the ceremony.
  • The DJ could confused about the first dance, and rather than playing Bobby Darren’s “Beyond the Sea,” he he will play “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

Sometimes it would keep me up, and I would lay on the sofa and plan through how I would handle inadvertently Rick-Rolling my own wedding.

None of these scenarios came to fruition. In fact, there were no major problems. Unfortunately, whatever time and energy I spent worrying about those things won’t get rolled over to the next major event like unused cell-phone minutes. It’s gone.

Mile 2: When things go wrong, it will be up to me to decide how to interpret them.

Okay, so we had a few minor mishaps.

ketuba.GIFMy favorite: as I mentioned earlier, I hand calligraphed (yes, that’s a word) the traditional Hebrew marriage contract. It took about four months. I started over at least ten times, for errors as small as a smudged letter or a dimple in the paper. Towards the ketubah’s completion, a stray greasy onion got stuck on the parchment. An alchemical combination of cornstarch and white ink masked the stain, and from that point on, I treated the contract as if it were a priceless fragment of the Dead-Sea Scrolls. It stayed in a protective sleeve between two pieces of pristine parchment.

Then, at the “tisch” (kind of a pre-ceremony toast-and-singing warm-up), a guest spilled water on the table. Somehow, it soaked up into the ketubah and smudged it. Yes, in the final moment before it was safely sealed into its frame for eternity, it got “damaged.”


Ring the bells that still can ring / forget your perfect offering / there is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in. (Rabbi Leonard Cohen)

“Normal Me” would have disintegrated on the spot. But “Wedding Me” saw things differently. That smudge was made by a guest whom I love, during one of the most profound moments of my life. It’s as if, along with the witnesses’ signatures, Human Existence itself signed the ketubah: “remember this moment.”

In real life, this kind of thing happens all the time.

I can recall, as a 4 year old, playing hide-and-seek with my brother and accidentally knocking over and shattering an antique lamp.

My parents cleaned it up, reminded us to be careful where we play, and that was that. Now, that episode is woven into the edifice of my childhood – a memory whose values transcends the worth of the glass lamp itself.

How many other things, in life, will break and shatter? How many other opportunities will I have to embrace the truth of the moment, shards and all, and value it above the “could-have-been” perfection which would have gone unremembered?

Mile 3: Uncomfortable feelings will go away soon. Sooner than you think.

I can be moody, and I can be set off. I’ve been to rock concerts where I was still grouchy during the encore because somebody inadvertently elbowed me in the ribs during the first song.

Leading up to the wedding, I was worried that perhaps something might “elbow” me, and I’d be standing under the chuppah annoyed that someone had scuffed my shoes while giving me a hug.

Throughout the day, I went from moment to moment – and when a bump occurred, it didn’t “spoil the concert,” so to speak. Perhaps because I was so resonant with the beauteous majesty around me. Or perhaps some new thing always came along to distract me.

climbing v2

A hieroglyph I drew that night: the first metaphor of our married life.

Until the end of the night. Exhausted, spent, Gabi and I rode a guest-packed shuttle to our wedding-night vacation house. We were the last ones on the bus, miles from the city. The bus stopped in the darkness, and the driver said, “This is it.” But that wasn’t it. The guest house was a quarter-mile up a dark hill. The shuttle driver wouldn’t drive it. Or call for help. Or walk with us. Or stay with us to make sure we made it, dressed in our wedding clothes, carrying bags and a bouquet.

After he drove away, and after Gabi and I groused for a minute, we saw ourselves as if from the outside. We were climbing up a pitch black, sweaty, exhausting metaphor, the first of our married lives.

Life bumps us in the ribs, constantly. But that moment is usually transitory. The feelings move on. The trick, for me, is to trust that it will.

And if I learned that on my wedding day, it’s mileage for life.






11 Days Until I Get Married. Holy Shit.

IMG_1454A Chassidic Story.

In a faraway land, a council of Wise People provides their citizens with daily guidance and wisdom. One day, the Wise People get an alarming message. A kind of fungus has grown on some of the rye of the kingdom. Many have inadvertently eaten this grain, and it has changed them. They no longer see the world in the same way they once did. They think differently. They are transformed forever. There is no cure.

The council waits for further news. A report comes: the people who have eaten the rye are now suggesting to others that they, too, partake of the grain. It’s happening. Soon, everyone in the land will have eaten the grain. No one will be their old selves.

The Wise People have a dilemma:  eat the grain, and lose their hold on reality, or refuse the grain, and before long, be rendered obsolete, unable to provide guidance and wisdom to a world transformed?

What do they do?

I’ll tell you later.

Obviously, I’m not the first person to get married. I’m not the first to write about the experience. And there’s tons of support and love from all around.

And before I say anything else, let me register this: I am thrilled beyond thrilled to be getting married to the most amazing person.

But the fact of the matter is, nobody can offer me real-time, “I know what you’re going through” hand-holding. Everybody sees my current state through their own filter – their own projections, their own memories. The result: lots of well-wishers, not a lot of true understanding, and a ton of unrequested advice.

My least favorite: “Just enjoy this special time!”

Yes, I know it’s special. It’s so special that I have almost nothing to compare it to, try as I might. “About to get married” is surreal, beyond comprehension, impossible to understand — for me, and for nearly everyone else. Every day in the U.S., about 6000 people get married. That’s 84,000 people dwelling, as we speak, in the “two week window.” That’s only 0.0056 % of the American population.  Effectively, nobody knows what we “about to be married” folks are experiencing.

What about veterans who’ve been married for 42 years? What about newlyweds? The reality is: both are on the “other side of the veil,” so to speak. You can do your best to remember, but your status has been altered, your mind changed. You will never know the feeling of “never having been married” ever again.

And that’s why: “Enjoy this special time” probably feels like good advice to give.

Unfortunately, “enjoy” doesn’t seem like the right thing to do – any more than Jodie Foster’s Dr. Araway should enjoy the final hours before she embarks on her space voyage in Contact (1997). Does she want to go? Obviously. Is she excited to go? Obviously. But the encounter with infinity is, to borrow from German Theologian Rudolf Otto, one of “daunting awfulness and majesty.” Within this encounter of “mysterium tremendum,” there is the “uncanny…divine wrath…judgment…and the reassuring and heightening experiences of grace and divine love.” In her final days on Earth, it doesn’t seem like enjoyment can possibly be on her mind.

For me, getting married is a numinous voyage into space, never to return. And though Gabi is on this journey as well, only I know my own rocket ship and where it’s been.

Not much room in this tiny rocket ship for “enjoyment.”


And yet.

This afternoon, Gabi and I sat by a beautiful water fountain and ate bagels.

mom and dad and the bridge




This morning, I spoke with my mother and father about bringing to the wedding a photo from their own wedding, 50 years ago, and was filled with existential tingles.

Last night, I laughed hysterically with my future father-in-law, sipping whiskey and watching “Walk Hard.”


Cigars were involved.

Yesterday, I had a phenomenal conversation with a friend about life and the ways our minds play tricks on us. I walked alongside a creek, watched the birds, and ate some tart wild raspberries.

Last week, my best friend conspired with my cousin and my future brother-in-law to spoil me with an afternoon of beach, bourbon, and buffalo chicken. Cigars may have been involved.

coffeeeeWe returned to my cousin’s house to shower and freshen up for dinner, and standing in the living room in my towel, sipping coffee and watching the afternoon wind whip through the palm trees, I felt like a prince.

I deeply.



And utterly enjoyed it.

So what did the Wise People do, watching while the world around them progressed into a new state – Wise People, perched between obsolescence and the absolute unknown? Eat the rye? Not eat the rye?

Each made a mark on his or her forehead, to remind them, and to remind each other, that once, they were different. They made a mark, and together, they ate the rye.

This blog post is my mark.

What I’ve Learned From Writing 100 Blog Posts

100.jpgWhat have I accomplished a hundred times?

And by “accomplish,” I mean, “something that takes effort.” Eating pizza doesn’t count. Even eating the whole pizza, which admittedly takes effort, and which I’ve done, doesn’t count. To be honest, I’m hard-pressed to come up with anything beyond the milestone this blog post represents.

Unless something is an explicit necessity for one’s livlihood, or part of the body’s daily needs, it’s a major challenge to accomplish anything 100 times. Nonetheless, has reached the 100-post mark. I’m proud as hell. I couldn’t have done it without my muse, with whom I’ll be “blogging back and forth forever” (an inside joke which I can let you in on).

So, the time is right for a round-up of what I’ve learned from this milestone, which, apparently, I’ve rarely ever crossed before.

  1. Feeling creative is elusive and transitory, like a crush. Being creative is a behavior that must be cultivated. Like love.

My most prolific period as a blogger was when I took on a challenge: 30 blog posts in 30 days. Jet lagged and exhausted at a Philadelphia educator’s conference, I propped my eyes open and banged out a blog post on dapper teachers.  Damn, did I not want to write it, but damn did it feel good to click “Publish” and crash on my hotel bed. And in doing so, I continued to fulfill a committment I’d already made. That’s being creative. That’s love.


This look has definitely been done before. But not in the way I do it.

2. Yes, other people do what you do. But nobody does it the way you do, or as well as you do.

I’ve been very successful, all my life, in finding the odd niches and filling them. In high-school, I wasn’t a jock or a science-nerd or a theater kid or whatever. Instead, I agglomerated a persona of odds and ends such that I never needed to worry about competition, not because I was the best at what I did, but because I was the only one who did what I did. And I’m proud of this. I was my own finest creation. But also, I never had much chance to test myself.

As an adult, I’ve loosened my grip on needing to be sui generis – one of a kind. Sure, I’m probably one of very few Style-Blogger/High School Jewish Studies educators in the world, so in that sense, there isn’t much competition. But there are so many style blogs out there, and there is so much material to read on education, It’s easy to feel like I’m the newest guest to arrive at a party of 10 thousand people. And all the buffalo tofu bites are gone.

But: I have my own thing to say. And even if others’ share my “thing to say,” no one says it how I say it. In a way, this is part of the human condition. To quote my favorite grump, Ecclesiastes, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” This is true. But at the same time, there is always room, under the sun, for a new way of helping people with old problems.

3. Don’t let your own successes back you in a corner.

Gabi and I just saw Dirty Dancing  live in San Francisco, so being in a corner, or getting out of it, is on my mind. Honestly, though, the one who puts me in a corner the most is me. I have a tendency to think that if I do something and it works, I should keep doing it.

It makes sense, and it’s deadly. Quickly, you can become stale, doing the same thing over and over, just because it worked. Remember those pathetic comic strips in the Sunday Funnies that retooled the same, tired routines? Yeah. I don’t want to be that.

On the other hand, I don’t want to throw away the “maybe” with the bathwater. Maybe I could try a new angle. Maybe I could explore something I’ve never explored before. Maybe I want to create something new.

Try it. Explore it. Create it.

No one puts maybe in a corner.





Moods, Microclimates, and Mohair Jackets


Dressed for a typical rainy/sunny/foggy day in San Francisco. A trench coat can be worn over a blazer, then folded and stashed into a backpack. During the sunny afternoon, sleeves roll up. Until Karl the Fog comes around.

Some people are like sunny San Diego, where it’s 82 degrees and sunny every day, where you can wear shorts and a t-shirt 300 days out of the year. These people are even-keeled. Upbeat. Unshakably positive. Sometimes, annoying.

Some people are dour, cloudy and grey. Like Seattle. Home of the grunge flannel shirt — a garment well suited for Seattle’s average temperature: 51.9 degrees. 

But I’m like San Francisco, the town I call home, where the weather (and one’s outfit) changes nine times a day, where microclimates can create a sartorial conundrum: on an afternoon of cross-town errands, should I bring a light jacket, a sweater tied around my waste? A backpack with a windbreaker? All of the above? Without proper planning, you will shvitz in the sunny Mission, and an hour later, you will shiver once Karl the Fog plows past the Twin Peaks and engulfs the eastern half of the city.

This is where I choose to live. And this matches nicely the sartorial/emotional reality of my own unpredictable moodiness. Certainly, I’ve experienced being “in a funk.” And I’ve known depression in my day. But moodiness is different. Moodiness is going through Tom Waits’ “Emotional Weather Report” all in the span of afternoon:

We are talking about late night and early morning low clouds
With a chance of fog, chance of showers into the afternoon
With variable high cloudiness and gusty winds…
For the areas including the western region of my mental health.

I’m learning when to fight against my moodiness, but more importantly, when to accommodate, when to shield others from it, when to adapt.

For example,  when I go to see live music, I go alone; at the Fillmore Theater, why should I drag friends and loved ones through my emotional microclimates? My impatience with the opening act, my annoyance about the lines for the bar, the restroom, my fixation on my inevitable exhaustion at work, tomorrow. Then, a brief reprieve as the first song of the night begins: sunny bonhomie, and I want to hug every stranger around me. Until some guy bumps me as I sway, eyes closed during my favorite song, when I return to my misanthropy.

Exactly. I call that fun. And I’ll gladly excuse you from dealing with it.


denim vest

A wool vest gives the denim jacket a bit of insulation for my morning commute, but won’t make me shvitz in my overheated workplace.

Or maybe you relate to this. Maybe, like me, you are moody.

Obviously, everyone experiences emotional weather patterns, but moody people experience them profoundly and frequently, and it’s part of who we are. For that matter, I wouldn’t have it otherwise.


I believe there is a correlation between moodiness and sensitivity, and sensitivity is a requirement for compassion and for deep connection. I once complained about my moodiness to a mentor who knew me very well, and in response, he suggested that our attention falls into two categories: (with that, he raised his hands and wiggled them, palm out) — when we are oriented outwards, paying attention to everything that happens around us (and then he reversed his hands)  and when we are oriented inwards, focusing on what’s happening inside.

He told me that some of my problems come from being just a little too much of both. For moody people, this can make any experience a tumultuous one. A concert is more than a visual/auditory experience, it’s an emotional panoply. It also means that the people in our lives feel seen and heard by us, and they know that when they share themselves with us, we are hearing them. And we are. Loud and freakin’ clear.

I think this is part of what makes me successful as a teacher; I can see and hear the needs of my students, and meanwhile, I have a strong intuition of what to say or do (or what not to say or do). It also means that I experience extreme emotion in response to my successes and failures: when a class goes well, I dance down the hallways afterwards like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. On the other hand, when a class bombs, I need to be scraped off the floor with a giant spatula.

For a moody person, a day of work involves emotional microclimates. It’s part of why I’m so tired at the end of the day. But like the denizens of San Francisco, who have mastered the art of layering their clothing, moody people have skills and strategies to adapt to their ever-changing inner weather patterns.


polo suit

A suit with a minimalist (and slim fitting) polo will keep you warm until the fog lifts.

Being moody means inevitable feelings of setback and disappointment. There will be fog. Around 4:30pm, the cold, wet damp will descend and you will hardly believe that you sought out the shade just an hour earlier. There is no way around this. However, successful moody people learn resilience – the ability to push through fog and rain, even though there is no sign of improved weather conditions in sight. Says  Eric Greitens, author of Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life, “You cannot bounce back from hardship. You can only move through it.” True also of moods.

San Franciscans throw on a scarf, add a few sweaters, and go out for ice cream. Likewise, learning to push through moods can prepare us to move through real-life difficulties. We can become attuned to how temporal the weather, our moods, and our life conditions are.



Heading off to teach a class on a rainy morning. Notice how all that mohair (warm) comes in layers (adaptable). Also, those Redwing boots contrast nicely with the “Oxford Prof” getup. Plus, they keep my feet dry.

I can go from cloud-nine to rain clouds in minutes. When I am disappointed, I am heart broken. But I mend quickly.

Years ago, upon conveying to me a piece of potentially troubling professional news, a colleague told me I was the last person he’d ever want to subject to disappointment and also the first person he’d expect to adapt to it.

Anyone who is both moody and successful has had two challenges in life: dealing with the shit that life deals us, and dealing with the shit that goes on inside of us.  We become, as a result, highly adaptive to challenging circumstances – but boy, will we complain about them.

True. Trust me, I’ll let you know how much I resent that something is forcing me to become a better person.


Knowing that I am inevitably going to be hot, later in the day, I wear dapper layers under my jacket so as to be able to strip off layers without stripping off style.

That said, adapting is my jam. While the uninitiated tourist will be spooked by morning fog and head out for the day coated in thick wool, we moody San Franciscans know that the sun will come out. Not tomorrow. Probably in about forty-five minutes.

That’s why I love sweater vests. They’re a strategy for adapting to fluctuations in temperature throughout the day.

Besides my wardrobe full of actual sweater vests, I have a wardrobe full of “emotional sweater vests,” strategies for adapting to my rapidly changing moods. I have learned when to ask for space (for 15 minutes, right when I get home from work). I have learned when and how to distract myself (retail therapy: the reason why I have so many sweater vests). How to process via journaling, meditation, therapy. I put on running shoes and I huff up and down San Francisco’s famous hills. To some, they are a nuisance. To me, they are a way of keeping my emotions in check.

But here’s the trick: don’t nag the moody person in your life to bring out the adaptive layers. Rather, invoke them, invite them by complimenting them: “I love how you look in that brown sweater. I love how you sometimes let go of your preference for a table by the window so I won’t sit by the door and freeze my ass off. It’s so sexy when you put things in perspective and let me choose the movie.”

Then, sit back and watch how elegantly we adapt.

Would You Like to Meet “Linus?”


me and linus

Linus. The real Linus.

Before Linus, I’d already met a few of my childhood heroes, face to face.

Dave Brubeck, my favorite pianist, used crackle and pop on my parent’s Hi-Fi, while I sat on the floor building a Capsela robot-tank. Thirty years later, I saw him in concert, and then ran into him, after the show, as he left the men’s room. (I managed to stammer: Hey Dave! Keep swinging!” 


I also met Gonzo. You know, the hook-nosed purple guy from the Muppets.

In that case, Dave Goelz, the Muppets puppeteer, came to San Francisco to a teacher’s event. I won a raffle, which brought me to the front of the room where Gonzo sat (on Mr. Goeltz’s knee) and I received my gift card from the 3-fingered hand of The Great Gonzo himself.

(Gimme 5!  I said. His reply: How about I give you three? Keep the change.)

So: I’ve met the real Dave Brubeck and the “real” Gonzo, but now,  I was offered a chance to meet the man that a fictional character was based on. That doesn’t happen every day.

Linus Maurer. Cartoonist, illustrator, and friend to Charles Schultz, lived in a nursing home in Sonoma County. My friend Rebecca connected me to Linus’s longtime partner, Mary Jo. “He’s a really friendly guy,” she said, “he loves company and he loves to tell stories.”

Not long after, I opened the screen door of a quaint and quiet ranch house: the nursing home where I would meet the real Linus.


If you love something, love it without apology.

The “pretend Linus” was my favorite Peanuts character. He could be snippy, sure, but he was generally kind and patient and a bit of an introvert; at once childish (security blanket) and naive (the Great Pumpkin) and precocious (sound theology). He was a bit of a megalomaniac, and yet humble (sort of).  He could impress others as an inventive-badass (blanket-whip) but most inspiring to me, he was Linus, the one and only — and no matter what his critics said about his eccentricities, Linus believes what he believes, and he loves what he loves.

The real Linus bore a key similarity to his pen-and-ink counterpart. He had a blanket. I don’t believe it was a security blanket, per se – just a cozy, gingham blanket, spread across his lap, though it was a warm Sonoma day. We sat and talked, side by side in reclining chairs, and he told me stories. Charles Schultz and he were friends in art school; Schultz had shown Linus a prototype drawing of a new character. Linus approved, and the India-ink neonate was named after him.

linus and linus

Linus and Linus. Photo from

During our time together, Linus told me about landing jets on an aircraft carrier during the war (very difficult, he said, especially with high winds). He told me that he drew comic strips and cartoons for advertisements all his life, and he still drew cartoons, to this day. Then, Linus began to rise to his feet to fetch his sketchbook. He instructed me to steady him by the shoulder, a plan which went kablooey when the nursing home attendant caught our little escapade and scolded us: Linus for standing up, me for allowing him to stand in his frail condition.

Once seated, he showed me his latest scribbles. Then we talked about the Bible. He, like his fictional counterpart, was a lover of scripture, while I teach Biblical literature at a Jewish School. Then, we pontificated about what makes a good cartoon: a perfect blend of art, story, and humor – and despite this complex alchemy, it must be simple.

In this moment, though Linus had swung in and out of lucidity during our time together, his humor and his authority emerged full strength; simplicity isn’t just important, he said, “It’s the most important.”

Eventually, Linus became sleepy and I left him to dose. I departed the nursing home feeling honored and thankful. He’d shared with me the gift of his stories and his humor.

Last week, less than a year later after our visit, Rebecca sent me sad news: Linus had passed away. And though his fictional counterpart always had a special place in my heart, now, the real Linus has a place of his own.

The memory of that afternoon together will live on with me, secure in my grasp. Secure like a blanket.


Linus Maurer, 1926-2016.