Turtle Boy – M. Evan Wolkenstein

What a lovely review! Thank you so kindly! 🐢 🐢 🐢💛


Today I am delighted to share with you a really special book on the blog, ‘Turtle Boy,’ by M. Evan Wolkenstein, a wonderful and thoughtful story inspired by the author’s real life experiences. Twelve year old Will thinks his life can’t get any worse. Mocked at school for how he looks and grieving for a father he can barely remember, he retreats into his shell hiding away from the world. But when he’s forced to do community service as part of his Bar Mitzvah preparations, Wilf meets RJ, a boy who spends his life confined to a hospital room. At first they struggle to connect but they soon find out they have something in common, they have hopes and wishes they haven’t shared with anyone else. Slowly they begin to help each other out and together they find a way to face the cards that life has dealt them.


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The Smells of Quarantine Shabbat

In high school, I was very choosy about my music. I loved the Beatles, first and foremost, because of their use of melody and harmony, humor and irony. I loved Simon and Garfunkel because of their lyrics, their poetry.

What I did not love was (what I called, at the time), “Noise music.” Too much screaming, distorted guitars, crashing drums drove me away.l

Then, I discovered the Dead Milkmen. A friend introduced me to a song called, “My Many Smells.” I won’t trouble you with the lyrics — they describe the odoriferous emanations of the singer. As a 15 year old, I found them hilarious. I couldn’t believe an actual song on an actual album would have words like that. My friend and I laughed and laughed and would riff on the words, passing each other in the hallway.

The words to the song describe smells. Their hilarity, of course, is due to the emotional reaction against them. Smells and emotions like disgust and pleasure are closely linked – as are smells and memory. Perhaps that is why, to this day, I can recall the descriptions of the Dead Milkmen’s singer’s odor-profile.

In this weeks parsha, Tzav, we learn about the offerings in the Tabernacle, from ingredient to restriction, from burning to smoke to ash. All the senses are activated: we can hear the crackle of the wood, used to fuel the fire. The sight of the flames, the touch of the animals, slaughtered and butchered for the holy meals — even smell.

Here, it becomes strange. The smoke is described as a “Reiach Nichoach” —  a sweet or pleasing savor. Sometimes, it’s even referred to as a Reiach Nichoach to God. Clearly, God is not eating the sacrifices, as such. How can the smell be “reiach nichoach” to God?

Meforshim (commentators) wrestle with this. Rambam, Moses ben Maimon, a rational thinker from about 800 years ago, wrote that the sacrifices “serve to remove sinful thoughts from our hearts. The effect of the offering upon the man who sacrificed it is pleasant unto the Lord.” Rashi understood “reiach nichoach” as “nachat ruach lif’nai” — “Of pleasing [fragrance] , satisfaction before Me [God],” for I commanded [that this be done], and My will was carried out.” (Sifra per. 6, 8.)

Both Rambam and Rashi transform a smell into an abstract thing: a recognition or a delight at human righteousness. But this loses some of the power of the actual thing – the smell in itself.

I’d like to suggest that the “reiach nichoach” is not abstract — it is a real smell — but the preposition “l’” is not signifying “to” God, but “of” God. The warm smell of toasting bread and grilling meat, the floral aroma of incense — this is, as it were, “God’s smell.”

What does this mean, that God has “a smell?” The smeller, of course, would be not God, but the people. They would derive pleasure from these smells. They would be reminded of prior holidays and pilgrimages, times of community and deep meaning. They would experience Israelite Aromatherapy. And this is much needed – many of the interactions with God up to this point have been tense or fearful: the quaking Mt. Sinai, the punishment after the golden calf, the plagues of Egypt.

Indeed, the genius of the Torah is that, today, without these verbal reminders of the smell in this and other parshiot,  we might imagine or picture the Korbanot (offerings), but we would not emotionally connect to the joyous aromas of feasting, dedication, and celebration. The mere mention of the smell calls to mind warm and pleasurable memories from our own lives. It allows us to connect to the Israelites’ experience.

These days, we are floating in a paradox — on the one hand, tumbling in turmoil through a world altogether strange, foreign, terrifying. And on the other hand, spending an inordinate amount of time at home, surrounded by the familiar: our rooms, offices, dining room tables – the same view out of every window, day after day.

My wife, Gabi, is an amazing chef. But beyond that (and besides being a brilliant writer and problem solver) she is an aromatherapist.

No, she doesn’t dab the bridge of my nose with rose oil to enhance my adaptogenic abilities (though that sounds cool), but she does fill the house with the comforting smells of baking challah, the savory waft of toasting sesame, the tang of sourdough starter. Out there in the world, it feels out of control. But at home, when we’re not looking at the news, it’s tranquil.

Let’s all take the time, this Shabbat, to stop and smell the roses, so to speak: find something delicious, soothing, stimulating, or comforting, reflect on where you are and who you are with. You will experience something of the power of the Korbanot in the Mishkan – and be glad it is a loaf of fresh Challah baking which you smell, and not the lead singer of the Dead Milkmen.

From Recreation to Re-Creation: How I learned to stop worrying and love my birthday

I used to be a nightmare on my Birthday.


2014. I look chill, but I was shitting a brick about turning 40.

I’ve found fault with the finest hotels, I’ve been grouchy about gifts. You could assemble a comprehensive primer on How-not-to-be-a-gracious-receiver by assembling  case studies from my birthdays.

Now, things are different. This morning, partway through my 44th birthday, I feel satisfied. Joyful. Full.

What’s changed?

The pitfall of birthdays in general: too much attention is often not good. Too much focus on desire leads to disappointment. I remember birthday parties from when I was a little kid, four or five years old. Who was most likely to be in tears by party’s end? The birthday kid. All the presents, all the cake, it’s overwhelming because it creates a sense of “what else is there?” and “why am I still hungry?”

me me me

Most of the problem: I worried way too much about what I wanted.

The journey from my 40th birthday to my 44th has been one of increasing responsibility and attachment: from multi-year committed relationship to engaged to married to looking forward to parenthood. And with each step, I feel myself losing some attachment to fanciness and diversion.

These days, I would truly rather spend a night at home, enjoying my family, than go out to any of the myriad restaurants in the neighborhood (granted, being married to an incredible chef makes that a no-brainer). Gabi and I are choosing stay-cations over vacations. And nothing makes me happier than an hour long walk. A nap. A cup of coffee. Some time to write.

Last year, in a prescient moment, I asked Gabi if she’d tolerate, for my birthday, a night in a rented Airstream Trailer about 45 minutes from San Francisco. I admit, it was the bougiest camper I’ve ever stayed in, but what made me happy wasn’t the camper itself, it was sitting at a little table, contemplating my life, smelling the sausages grilling through the vent, and watching the sun set.

Simple things.


Simple things.

This morning, Gabi brought the baby into the living room so I could get 45 extra minutes of sleep, stretched out on my tummy, the bed all for myself.

Simple things.

We called my parents and they got to see Anna on Face time.

Simple things.

I sat with Anna and recorded a hilarious video (which I will definitely show her one day) reviewing the 2 hours of crying that marked the last hour of my 43rd year and the first hour of my 44th year.

Simple things.

Gabi made me vegetarian sausages, savory crepes, and the best damn scrambled eggs I’ve ever had.

Simple things.

Oh…and a super-cool Green-bay Packers Cardigan and hat.

Unexpected, simple things.

I find my need for recreation and diversion has lifted, and my desire for the re-creation that takes place by spending time with my family has greatly increased.

Next to Anna Mari, this satisfaction is the greatest birthday gift I’ve ever received.

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.” [http://usat.ly/1RifBDk]

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.


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 Sonomanews.com

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.





What I Learned From the “Check Your Head” Shirt



This damn t-shirt: the end of innocence. Circa 1987.

In 7th grade, fitting in was pretty much the entire game. It was 1987; despite the fact that it was 20 below on the shores of Lake Michigan, everyone dressed like they were about to go surfing. As for me, I wore whatever corduroy slacks my mother dropped on me. Then, one day, every single kid in my grade came to school wearing a t-shirt: an airplane crashing vertically into the ground.

To my eyes, this shirt was ugly (which it is, I guess) and everyone wearing it was an idiot (which they were, given that this was 7th grade). Plus: Licensed to Ill? Bad grammar.



I never fit in which trendy people like these. Perhaps to my credit.

I claimed not to want to fit in, and to some degree, I paid the price: I ate lunch with two other non-cool kids in the library. Instead of jockeying for the best seat in the cafeteria, we talked about the books we would one day write. Instead of talking about “who liked who,” we discussed our favorite sci-fi movies with the librarians (remarkably funky people for Mequon, Wisconsin).


We were happy not to fit it. But we weren’t exactly comfortable with who we were, either. Dropping out wasn’t the solution.


sheep.jpgAs an adult, I’ve made peace with License to Ill (it’s an AWESOME album), and with trends of all sorts. It helps that, as I went through my twenties and thirties, fitting in via the fad du jour, whatever form it took, became the province of people I don’t have to trouble myself with.

For the rest of us, the important “fitting in” is not about where you are or what you wear or what you listen to, it’s about fitting into your own skin. We admire (and strive to be) confident in who we are. We admire people who are comfortable with themselves, comfortable with their surroundings. And the people we really admire are the ones who make everyone else feel comfortable, as well.

And by the way, if this isn’t the way your world works, consider moving to a new world.

on point.jpgBehind the scenes, fitting in with your world is more than putting on a confident face and striding into a room like you own the place. It’s also about how you present yourself. How you “read.” And if you don’t think that’s true, consider the reoccurring dream where you’re naked in front of an audience. Oh, you know that dream? Exactly: everyone feels, to some degree, unclothed – vulnerable – with our doubts and anxieties. We do our best to dress ourselves, metaphorically, with confidence. And we can wear actual clothes, hopefully with confidence, every day.

When your clothes fit, we call it “on point.” When they fit together, we call it a great “out-fit.” It’s like, literally, you fit to the outside eye. The effect is pleasing and it ascribes characteristics to the wearer: you’re put together You fit.

And then there’s fitting the scenario: the perfect suit to an interview, the perfect blazer for a first date, the perfect outfit to a bar-b-q. You are in harmony with your surroundings.


Then, there are the seasons. To some, it’s always khakis and button-shirt season. But seasons give us an opportunity to stand out for fitting in – not with fashion trends, but with the world around us.

Below, I show how dressing to fit in with winter includes colors, materials, and layers.



Outfit One: #Tweed is the Tweet

To begin with, this outfit features a few “all-year” items: Levi’s (more than “all year” – they’re like “every damn day”), Clark’s Original Desert Boots, and a denim jacket.

Then, two “signifiers” indicate: “Yes, I know very well what season it is.”

  1. The tie.
  2. The vest.

Both of them are made of heavy tweed, a heavy material who comes out to play during the cold months. Obviously, the tweed tie isn’t going to keep me warm when San Francisco fog coats the city in grey brrr, but it sends the message: it’s winter, and I’m cool with that.

 Outfit Two: Black Turtle Necks, Beyond Steve Jobssherpherdsuit

Here, Gabi and I are attending a party in some swanky loft. It was a suit-worthy affair – but also, after work during the coldest month of the year. No mere “dapper suit” would flip its finger to the 40-degrees-and-raining-like-hell situation outside.

This suit, to begin with, is made of a thick, shepherds check – in black and white. Paired with a black turtleneck, it’s heavy and stark (like winter) but playful, as well.

Your winter fancy-pants should be flannel, wool, and other heavier weaves. Again, no one will haul you to fashion-jail if you’re wearing khakis, but why not radiate cozy-winteriness?

Outfit 3: Ski-Lodge on the Rangewooltieandsweater

Obviously, when temperatures dip, it’s a good time to bust out the heavy sweaters. But if you wanna get dappered up, and you pair your heavy, snuggly sweater with a bar-mitzvah tie, you’re going to undo the “fitting-in-with-the-seasons” thing you’ve been working so hard on.

Fortunately, there’s knit ties from The Tie Bar.  These things are so affordable, and so beautiful, you’ll do one of those guilty “looking both ways to see if you’re in trouble” things before you whip out your credit card.

When it arrives, pair it with a cozy sweater and a denim shirt. Don’t be surprised if someone asks you to join them on a one-horse-open-sleigh.


Outfit 4: Pulling the Wool herringbone.JPG

Our last outfit demonstrates a simple principle: texture+texture=winter.

Warm weather tends to feature bolder, stripier, polka-dottier patterns. Cold weather, on the other hand, is all about texture – meaning, you don’t see it until you look closely.

From afar (like, normal, non-creepy distance), it gives the impression of thickness. And thickness fits in, beautifully, in winter.

Combine a textured tie, jacket, and pants, and you look cozy-warm and on-point.


Try some of the tricks above, and experiment with the feeling of fitting-in that comes through embracing the seasons.