One Man’s Amazing is Another Man’s Insane

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63 straight days of running marathons. 1650 miles. Amazing or crazy or both. At least he did it for a good cause.

As reported on NPR, Ultramarathoner Tim Borland set out last year with a goal for 2007: call attention to ataxia-telangiectasia (A-T), a rare degenerative children’s disease that combines the symptoms of cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis and cancer.

No day off. Marathon after marathon. 7,000-8,000 calories burned a day. Oh btw he ran most of them pushing a jogging stroller with different children who have the disease.

Amazing what someone can do, will do, for a cause. Tim Borland, my latest hero.

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JRC

The Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC) in Evanston has “been my synagogue” for the past 10 years. I put those words in quotation marks after staring at the screen for 10 minutes trying to find words to relate the JRC to me. Those words came to me but I feel they need further explanation. Let me get back to that at the end of this post.

I came to the JRC shortly after becoming no longer single and learning the importance, if not the skill, of compromise. While not terribly religious on a daily basis I grew up in a Traditional congregation. That slice of Jewish observance falls a half step below orthodox. The women are not separated physically from the men but they play no direct role in leading the worship service or the business of being a congregation. Most of the service is in Hebrew and it tends to be long. Rabbinic sermons were filled with fire and brimstone. I only grew up at this congregation because my aunt and uncle belonged there when we moved into the neighborhood. Yet this approach to being a Jew was how I spent my formative years, provided the foundation of my Jewish education and all I knew for thirty years.

My wife on the other hand grew up in a Humanist congregation. I do not know exactly what this means but in terms of worship service it seems to have been lighter than most reform congregations. Short and mostly in English.  All I know is the family rabbi that married us refused to wear a yarmulke, the traditional head covering which I had been led to believe was part of Jew 101.

Needless to say, finding a congregation that we could both be comfortable in was going to be challenging. After 6-8 attempts at various places we lowered the standard of success to finding a place we both could tolerate. JRC became that place.  

In the first couple of years I was mostly focused on what JRC wasn’t. I would tell my friends how they shortened most of the prayers and did much more in English than in Hebrew. It felt less religious. Worst of all they used different tunes for the prayer/songs that I knew and loved. You cannot overestimate how closely my spiritual tie to the entire service, to being Jewish, was linked to those songs. I don’t particularly like change.

I believe my wife seemed focused initially on how much more Hebrew was read than what she had been accustomed to and the increased length of the services. We both however had appreciation for how music was integrated into the service which created beauty.  In my former place of worship, no musical instruments were allowed, just a small men’s choir. Here, in addition to a choir of women and men came guitar, piano, flute and cello. I began to notice the joy that much of the congregation took from the service. In the early years though I stayed true to my introverted self and emotionally held the entire experience at arm’s length. This was a place to be on the high holidays and a place for my son to receive a Jewish education. It continued to meet the “high” standard of compromise that my wife and I set.  

Fast forward to Wednesday, September 13, 2007, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, marking the beginning of the Jewish New Year. I was in an ugly mood and having trouble connecting in any way to the service. The turning point for me came after the rabbi introduced one of the members of the congregation to provide her personal reflection, a regular event on the high holiday program of JRC.

The woman’s theme was redemption. She spoke of growing up in an orthodox tradition and learning to love being Jewish. As a young adult, however, she began feeling left out given the orthodox focus on men and the exclusion of women from the most holy aspects of the rituals. It was not until her partner chose to convert and become a Jew and then later dragged her to the JRC that she reconnected with her religion and found a warm and accepting religious community. She had been concerned that being female, gay and an adoptive parent were facets of her personality that would make connections difficult. At JRC she found not only people that would accept her as she was but also people similar to her.

For some reason this woman’s story struck me harder than usual. I was vaguely aware that JRC was an open and accepting community. I say vaguely only because I have always stayed on the periphery. In prior years, others had in similar personal reflections echoed those sentiments. I could also visually observe the differences in the congregation and how JRC conducted itself. This time however I felt the truth of her observations.

At JRC it does not matter if you are female or male, gay or straight, or young or old. Anyone showing interest and being deserving (based on their actions, especially in support of the JRC and its community) can participate in meaningful ways in the prayer service. As an example, my friend’s son Sam reads from the Torah though he is only a few years beyond his bar mitzvah. (He does an excellent job btw.)

On JRC’s website you will find the words below.

Welcoming

 

Joyful

Innovative

Dynamic

Inclusive
 

Caring

 

The JRC and its community are all that. The Rabbi, Brant Rosen has brought to us attention to religious study, humor, good nature, a focus on community and an activist’s focus on doing good works– both within the Jewish community but also anywhere else they are needed. Despite the fact that he looks as if he is barely out of rabbinic school he provides the right kind of leadership to this community.

Cantor Howard Friedland is one of the warmest individuals you could ever meet. This comes through in his chanting and his comportment in front of the congregation. Taking a slightly different road to JRC, he was a free-lance actor before becoming a cantor. While not having a long cantorial resume would have excluded him from consideration at other congregations, it was who he is and not what he previously did that mattered to the JRC.

So why am I writing over a thousand words about the JRC? The values of JRC are values that I hold dear. Values are a big part of who I am. That JRC and I had this in common struck me intellectually and I connected at least on that level. For me this was a significant step forward. The next day, the second day of Rosh Hashanah is attended by only 20%-25% of the crowd from the day before. I enjoy the more intimate setting. I sat with friends and actually prayed. The beginning of a connection on an emotional level. A baby step anyway. For now for me JRC is a place to be. It is my synagogue in name. My dues are current. For now I recognize that it is much more for many people and could be more for me some day. Who knows if or when? Stay tuned.

Enough? or Enough!

Is there such thing as enough? If the appetite is there and the spirit willing and wanting, then why hold back! Should we not get all out of life that we can? If so, then Enough? should dictate, not Enough!

I am an Enough! kind of guy. I may be wired that way or just too accustomed to not push for more– especially for my self. I have self imposed rules. Work before play is a big one. It means that I will do the job that pays, take care of the house, kids, finances, etc. first. With the time left over, not so much I might add, I play. So what would happen if I built more play into the fabric of my life? I do not know but a large part of my brain says that the world would fall apart.

How does one really know if one is being responsible or just anal? Upstanding or just dull?

I sure don’t know.  As with all great questions–I can label this as a great question since this is my blog– the right answer may be somewhere in the grey area. More likely the right answer is different for different people. Or maybe there is one right answer.

Enough already!…or is it Enough already?

An Island of Hope

In a sea of bad news from around the world, I came across this tiny island of hope. For a year now the Urban Prep Charter Academy has been offering a different path to young African-American males in one of the poorest and violent neighborhoods in Chicago.

If success is to be defined by the lives that these boys to young men eventually lead, it is too early to tell whether the Academy will be successful. Progress is being made.

Can you imagine living in a neighborhood where regularly shootings occur, people have little money and selling drugs is the best vocational opportunity for bright, strong, ambitious teenagers? I can’t. 

Urban Prep is the only all boys high school in the Chicago public schools system.  Its freshman class was generally reading at a sixth grade level.  The staff wants their boys to expand the notions of what a black man can become to include scholar, gentleman, and leader. They established a creed for the boys to learn and live by, at least at school. One difficulty for the boys is that the creed exists in the school but not in the rest of their world. Its students are ridiculed on the way to school because of the uniform the must wear  and are called gay for attending an all boys school.  The opportunity for violence outside the school is high.

And yet, the attitudes and behaviors are beginning to change. Lets hope that this grand experiment succeeds and multiplies. 

I have included the entire creed.  These are words appropriate for all teenage boys-to-men. 

We are the young men of Urban Prep.
We are college bound.
We are exceptional — not because we say it, but because we work hard at it.
We will not falter in the face of any obstacle placed before us.
We are dedicated, committed and focused.
We never succumb to mediocrity, uncertainty or fear.
We never fail because we never give up.
We make no excuses.
We choose to live honestly, nonviolently and honorably.
We respect ourselves and, in doing so, respect all people.
We have a future for which we are accountable.
We have a responsibility to our families, community and world.
We are our brothers’ keepers.
We believe in ourselves.
We believe in each other.
We believe in Urban Prep.
WE BELIEVE.

My Son is 16 Today!

Happy Birthday Davide! Tonight after reading three cards written by your mother, you asked me where were my words.

That was a great question.

I do not tell you very often that you are great or that you do great things. You are and you do.

I often ask more from you so I am sure it seems that I am never satisfied with who you are and what you do. I understand your point of view. How can you know if I do not say the right words and the words I do say criticize rather than praise.

Let me start tonight and I will work hard to let you know these things as often as I feel them.

You are fun and funny. Smart. Good hearted. Independent — on some things. You can be sweet and caring. Helpful — when you choose to be. You have lots of good friends who are good people. Now that is something to be especially proud of.

You work hard. You like to play. Just because I want to you to work harder does not mean that I don’t realize that you work even if it sounds that way when the words come out.

I wish for you to be happy and to become even more of a mensch– a person who does good. I also wish for you to do well, to find and chase your passion and to –when the time is right–to find your soulmate. I want you to take some chances, put yourself out there. I will be here to help if things don’t go as you wanted. That can happen sometimes when you take chances. Better to try and fail sometimes than not to try.

I hope that you will trust me and learn to share with me.  It is hard to do these things sometimes especially when you want your independence. If we trust each other freedom will come more quickly.

You were easy to love when we first met. I was probably easier to love then too. It seems as if it were just a short time ago and yet now you are closer to being a man than a child.

I am proud of you. I am happy to be your dad. I love you very much. Happy birthday my son.

I Have Always Depended on the Kindness of Strangers

Well, not in a Blanche DuBois kind of way. Most times strangers at best ignore you or get angry over the most modest of perceived slights. So I was surprised and pleased to the point of tears when yesterday a stranger went out of her way to be nice.

I have an autistic sister. She lives in a group home not to far away. While my Mom still does the heavy lifting for Sandy, my siblings and I take turns entertaining her on a Sunday afternoon. Sandy has limited speech, some behavioral quirks and will never be able to live on her own. Some days she is in more control of herself than others. Yesterday was a little less than more.

We walked around a mall for an hour waiting for Charlotte’s Web to begin. While at no time did she fall to the ground screaming–been there, done that– I could tell that she was more excitable than her best days. Tactical error by older brother. Bought too much popcorn and soda. Sandy needs to finish things. More on that later.

The crowd was young kids and parents. Sandy was talky from the get go. It didn’t manner much during the previews but it continued once the movie began. Not overly loud but constant chatter. Nothing I did would quiet her. With an autistic sister you can handle things two ways. You can be be embarrassed or be her advocate. Yesterday I was a little of both. I tried to get her to stop because I certainly did not want others disturbed but I also realized that there was a baby crying occasionally and other kids talking. I wanted to keep her from overeating but realistically buying a large popcorn did not put my sister in an environment where she could succeed. As I said, Sandy needs to finish things. When I took the popcorn away she would get louder.

Half way through the movie a teenage usher came by and asked us to leave. My sister would have no part of that. I tried to get her to go but knew that screaming would soon occur. So I sat there, nervous and embarrassed, waiting for the usher to come back.

Then the calvary arrived. A woman in the row behind us went over to speak to the usher. She came back and leaned over to say something to me. I was certain that she was going to demand that we leave. To my amazement, she had told the usher to take a hike, that there were other kids standing, talking and making noise. That this is how young kids watch movies and that we should stay.

Sandy was quiet the rest of the movie. Once the popcorn was finished she stopped obsessing over it. I also believe she now understood that she needed to behave better. At the end of the movie my sister was laughing and joyous in a way that only the young at heart can be.

I thanked the woman. I had had a brutal work week and this bit of kindness saved my sanity. We continued to talk and it was a moment before I realized I was being rebuked for not standing up for my sister. Often rebukes by strangers would make me mad but she was absolutely right and she had helped. Then the woman sitting on the other side of Sandy went out of her way to tell me that she was not bothered by my sister’s behaviors. People can be quite understanding sometimes.

There is a lesson or two somewhere in this story.  I think I will ask Sandy to enlighten me.

New Year’s Resolution (Part 1)

For me, resolution at New Years has more to do with optics — how well I see the world — rather than making commitments. Though my physical vision deteriorates with age, I believe that I “see” better with each passing year.

There are two aspects to my improved sight. First, my abilities to see empathetically occur more frequently. I can even occasionally see through my son’s or wife’s eyes. At work I try to see things through the eyes of the young associates I work with and help to develop. However, at work I find it much more difficult to empathize with the perspectives of my peers and leaders of the firm. Most of them have worked their entire careers there and are challenged to see the need to embrace change.

I am also working on my context sight, understanding the situations and the emotional state of others. Context also improves sight. When I see things only through my context and my feelings I am myopic to the feelings of others.

Reading about all the horrors and hatred in the world from the Middle East to Africa to my home town makes me wish for greater resolution for all in this new year.

I resolve to see the other person’s point of view in 2007.