Sunday, September 23, 2007

On Fasting and Wordless Eloquence

This didn't start out as a long entry. Turns out the whims of current events had other plans.
Item 1: One of the great mysteries in the history of Judaism is this: why do they call it a fast when it goes so slowly?
The idea that a person can atone for a year's worth of sins with a day of fasting seems, at least in my case, wistful at best. A team of people fasting on my behalf for a month might - I say might - begin to scratch the surface. Still, with the fear of catching a lightning bolt in the tuchas fresh in my mind, in observance of Yom Kippur dinner Friday and breakfast and lunch Saturday were replaced by healthy servings of atonement, with a booming voice from heaven asking, "Do you want to supersize that?"
One learns things over the years that help: go into the fast with a saturated body - it's the water you miss more than the food - and keep the physical exertion to a minimum. And you do get hardened to it after a while. (My kids thought I was insane spending a good bit of Saturday making tomato sauce.)
And candles. It's a Jewish practice to light special memorial candles on Yom Kippur in memory of departed loved ones. (The candles usually cost $0.79 each, but earlier in the day I'd found them locally on sale for $0.25. God does indeed work in mysterious ways.) There were a lot of new candles this year - for my father, of course, and for family I didn't know but have started wanting to. A special "unofficial" candle in a votive for Skids. (I'm not sure how God would feel about lighting an "official" candle for a pet, but it didn't feel right not to include her in some way. I take it as a sign of His approval that this candle, too, was on sale.) I think of the collection of candles my grandmother used to lay out, covering the top of her television - I'd started out years ago with the one or two I'd seen my parents put out - and am sobered for a moment by the passage of time.
Item 2: Wordless Eloquence
I was all set to end this entry after the Fasting part. Then I read a news item this morning on the passing of Marcel Marceau and felt things I needed to express. Definitely an "awww" moment. Every era has its luminaries and, after a good run during their lives, they pass and the new generation comes along. It's a good system that gives each generation what it needs without over-burdening history. (Do we really need to know about whatever ancient Egyptian comedians Ramses thought were hilarious?) It's really something when you have the opportunity to experience the work of someone you know will still be talked about a hundred years from now. A man I know, himself a skilled and accomplished mime and clown, studied with him years ago and still refers reverently to "Mr. Marceau."
A few years ago I'd heard about a performance Marceau was going to be doing in New York City. It got me thinking about hearing that my grandmother had once seen Houdini perform, and gave me the idea that this was a chance to give my children, probably 11 or 12 years old at the time, the chance to tell their grandchildren they once saw a truly great artist. While the performance turned out to be a little above their young heads, it's testimony to the skills of a great artist that it spoke clearly to an older mime-illiterate like me. The level of detail Marceau evoked with only his body and movements still amazes me. (Example: In once piece he was depicting a man who, in buttoning an imaginary shirt, kept mis-aligning the button-holes and having a piece of the shirt front hanging down on one side. After the third attempt, he picked up an imaginary scissor and cut away the part hanging down. It was funny, but more than that, it was brilliant in its clarity.) There was more funny and sweet stuff, of course, but most of all I remember a piece he closed the show with called, "Bip's Dream." Without a clue going in as to what this curiously titled piece was about, in short order it became clear it was a powerfully moving description of the experience of a young man growing up in Nazi-occupied France. In his obituary, it didn't surprise me at all to learn he was himself a Holocaust survivor who as a young man lost his father in Auschwitz and was very active in the French resistance.
Marceau himself once said, "Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us without words?" Indeed they sometimes do, Mr. Marceau. Thanks for giving me an experience I'll be proud to share, albeit with the limitations of words, with my grandchildren.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Never Again

No doubt there are many 9/11 posts being made today. Some will be written by people who really were part of the tragic story, while others will be by people who, in the telling, make themselves part of it. No one has the definitive word, nor should they. Everyone, if only by being human, has some connection to that awful day. In a way it was my generation's JFK assassination: we'll laugh again, but we'll never be young again.

My own involvement, if it can even be called that, was limited to observing from a safe distance. At the time I wasn't sure why I was taking the photos included here, or whether it was even in good taste to do so. Since it was clear history was happening even before we knew its full extent, I decided to take the pictures while I could and sort out the other issues later.

With my friends in other places in mind, I eventually decided to try to create a small record of the events and their aftermath that was not filtered through professional news reports, but rather that was as seen through the eyes of an average New Yorker. It is in this spirit that I offer these photos.

I had a lot more words written and then realized it would be more appropriate to let the images speak for themselves to whomever will listen, just as they first spoke to me six years ago. I have added only a few minor captions under some of the photos.

A few minutes after the south tower fell.

Mid-town Manhattan (about a mile north of the site) a couple of hours after the attacks. These streets would normally be packed with people, cars and buses.

Later that afternoon, from across the Hudson River on a train in Newark, New Jersey.

In this photo and the two below are, for me, some of the most heart-wrenching images from the weeks following the attacks: flyers posted everywhere by family members desperately holding on to a thread of hope, seeking information on the whereabouts of missing loved ones.


A couple of days after the attacks, a sign outside Madison Square Garden in mid-town Manhattan lists all events as being cancelled.

For weeks after the attacks, smoke rose from the site as the building materials and contents continued to smolder.


Saturday, September 1, 2007

We Now Return to our Regularly Scheduled Rant

As sadness moves over enough to allow room for other emotions, and we once again thank everyone who showed us such great kindness and empathy, a bit of normalcy begins to return. We start to welcome happy memories, a bit of laughter, and, perhaps most normal of all, the need for a rant.
As I write this, one of my sons is in Germany on a school band trip that brings high school musicians from several countries together for nine days of friendship, cooperation and shared education, after which time they will go back to their respective countries and think of each other as unsophisticated savages again. It's a long way from Berlin to New Jersey. ("Mister Governor...tear down that turnpike rest stop!")
We sent him off prepared, of course. American dollars for use stateside, Euros for once he's in Germany, or if he lands on Boardwalk or Park Place along the way and needs to pay rent. A voltage converter to avoid a life threatening emergency should his Ipod run out of power. Dramamine and, of course, hair gel.
Most interesting to me is this, which was in the handout material given to the students: "You may meet, and most certainly will interact with people who have never met Americans. We would like to leave a good impression that will be a lasting positive experience in our partners' minds. Stereotypes exist of Americans too. Do you fit them? We are all pushy, self-centered and rude. We are uneducated and indifferent about the rest of the world. We only eat fast food. We all own guns. We're all a bunch of cowboys."
To the rest of the world we're one giant Jack Black movie.
Pushy, self-centered and rude? That's ridiculous. I am not pushy. And guns...I'm sure they know the only one that might get past the airport's metal detectors is that plastic gun. The Glock. And which one of us invented that one, Johann? (Maybe someone can do something really useful for airline passengers and use some of that Glock-plastic to make a nail clipper.)
As for being indifferent about the rest of the world, I think I can clear that up. That's just Democrats. Republicans care about other countries so much they send in troops to be greeted as liberators. That balances, doesn't it?
Fast, well...let's go on to the next point...
It's not true that all Americans are cowboys, of course, but it never hurt Clint Eastwood and I always thought Gary Cooper was very cool. Maybe we should think about it.
I hope I've been able to dispel some of these American stereotypes for my overseas readers and foster an atmosphere of cooperation and mutual respect. I'd write more, but I have to finish my Big Mac and supersized chocolate shake, load up my six-shooter and ride into town for the hanging. And if anyone thinks that's bad manners, hey, I got your manners, right here.