Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Okay. So Now I Get It

Facebook, it seems, has greater value to me than encouraging people to buy my books or satisfying my insatiable desire to know what my FB friends many of whom I have never met had for breakfast.  Separated by almost three thousand miles, Facebook has helped me bridge the distance between California and New York/New Jersey.  For example, a Facebook page called Normandy Beach which a couple of days ago had in its several years of existence acquired only a few friends/followers suddenly catapulted up to almost a thousand followers all desperate for information about homes, friends, relatives.  That page has become a wonderful and heartbreaking source of information for so many.  Perhaps by next week it will have reverted to where to get the best muffin but for now it is one of the few ways to find out what is happening in a part of the country cut completely cut off from the rest of us.  Thanks, Mark Z.

Monday, October 29, 2012

East Coast Miseries

Sitting here in Southern California watching coverage of the East Coast storm family and friends seem even farther away than is the normal sense of distance.  And now the power is out on much of the East Coast.  I am reminded that land lines through telephone companies work in power failures.  Cell phones have batteries that run out and phones through cable companies work only when the cable works. 
And here's a picture of the lobby of an apartment building in Jersey City where a family member now separated from us not only by miles but by storms and no electricity hunkers down on the fifth floor with friends and dogs.


If The Election Had Been Held Today

It would at least be over tomorrow.  In addition to a cap on campaign spending, there definitely should be a cap on campaign length.  At some point it becomes almost impossible to care and when that happens times become quite risky.  It isn't fair to bludgeon a nation with constant campaigning.  Let the voting begin so it can at last end.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sometimes Getting Started Again Is Really Hard

That's when it seems like nothing is possible and so we do nothing because, well, nothing is possible.  That's the nature of feeling overwhelmed until eventually we just stop.  The solution?  Do something.  When so much needs doing it doesn't really matter where we begin.  The important thing is to come unstuck and do something.  So that's what I'm doing right now.  Something.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Looking Back On The Duarte Festival Of Authors

In a word, it was fun.  It was particularly fun moderating a panel discussion of six fiction authors.  The folks who organize the festival treat the authors to a great day with free lunch, table coverage so the authors can spend some time visiting other authors, and snacks and water.
If you didn't visit it this year, put it on your calendar for next year.  It's a great way to spend part of a Saturday afternoon.

Mary Walker Baron (left) moderates a panel of six fiction authors at the Duarte Festival of Authors.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Turn, Turn, Turn

On the Shabbat which falls in the holiday of Sukkot, we read the book of Ecclesiastes during the morning service.  The opening words of the book state that these are "The words of Koheleth, son of David, king in Jerusalem", and legend has it that it was written by King Solomon, the epitome of wisdom, at the end of his life, looking back on what he has learned.  It was an appropriate reading for our agricultural ancestors, as they reaped the harvest and awaited the coming winter.

It's also surprisingly appropriate for us.  Koheleth (as the book is called in Hebrew) is a reflection on the meaning of life.  He ruminates that "there is nothing new under the sun", and that God's phenomena of nature and of human behavior are limited, but that no one can predict what will happen to him or herself, except that death is inevitable.  He advises good living, the enjoyment of what one has, both in material goods, companionship and love of spouse and family, and takes to task those who pursue wealth or power over personal pleasure.

Perhaps the best-known words from the book of Koheleth come from chapter 3, verses 1-8, as set to music by Pete Seeger in 1959, and recorded by The Byrds in 1965.  Wikipedia describes it as, "Easily, the #1 hit with the oldest lyrics".

"A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep."

Friday, October 5, 2012

I Must Tell My Brain

I must tell my brain that I'm sorry.  I realize that my addiction to the television Grey's Anatomy is the brain food equivalent of eating M&Ms.  Fortunately for my body I can resist the candies.  Unfortunately for my brain I cannot or I choose to not resist Grey's Anatomy.  Having said that I have no idea how I might explain to my brain my excitement felt when I learned that there is a Die Hard 5 movie and a new James Bond movie.
To which my brain replied, "Yippie Kay Yo Ayyyy......"
Life is complicated.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Turning Around

Kol Nidre sermon written by me and delivered by MWB on September 25 at Congregation Etz Chaim in Ramona CA:



A Hasidic rabbi asked a member of his congregation: “If you are going east and suddenly you want to travel west, how far do you have to go?”  The man gave him many complex answers, but the rabbi answered simply, “If you are going east and you want to go west, all you have to do is turn around!  It’s as simple as that!”
            As simple as that.  Is it really?  I suspect that, when most of us get down to the serious work of changing our lives for the better—because that is, of course the kind of turning to which the rabbi of the story refers—we find it a great deal harder than he makes it sound.
            Here’s a different and much more recent story which may ring more true, and may help us in our own struggles to change, even one little bit of ourselves.  Here is the brief puzzling account of what happened on January 25, 2012 at 11 a.m. in Glendale California, in the words of the Los Angeles Times of the next day:
Woman drives Mercedes 70 mph down Verdugo Wash
January 26, 2012 
 
Police and fire crews are trying to remove a Mercedes sedan from the concrete-lined portion of the Verdugo Wash after an elderly woman apparently got confused and mistook it for an entrance to a freeway.
The woman apparently drove into the wash at Glenoaks Boulevard and Kenilworth Road in Glendale about 11 a.m. She drove through the water and several stopped portions of the channel while reaching speeds of about 70 mph, officials said.
The woman finally stopped near San Fernando Road after being hailed down by maintenance workers, who she whizzed past at freeway speeds, police Sgt. Tom Lorenz told the Glendale News-Press.
"Right now it's unexplainable," he said.
The woman, whose identity and age were not immediately available, was taken to a nearby hospital for evaluation.

            Well, the mystery never really cleared up.  The driver was taken to a hospital, where she tested negative for alcohol or drugs, or any illness that could explain her driving behavior.  Her insurance company paid to have the car lifted out of the wash, so there was no reason for the city to charge her with anything.  She did not have to make a statement and as far as I know, she never did.  She drove nearly a mile down the channel, taking several drops of three feet each, and coming perilously close to landing in the Los Angeles River.  She had a very narrow escape, and I’m sure everyone who read this story was wondering how she could have gone so wrong
            When I am working, I drive past the corner of Glenoaks and Kenilworth at least twice a day, and sometimes more often.  I examined the area, because there was something about this story that fascinated me.  Next to the church on the corner is a double metal fence, which workers had mistakenly left open when the woman drove in.  The entrance is a gentle slope down, and I see how it could have been mistaken, at first, for a freeway entrance, or more likely, for the other reason the news offered for her driving in there, an entrance to the church parking lot.  However, once she was in the wash, there could be no mistake.  It looks nothing like a freeway or a parking lot.  There is a channel of water flowing down the middle of the concrete.  There were no other cars, and yet she continued on at freeway speeds, even passing workers who tried to stop her.  At first, I assumed that she kept on going because the channel was too narrow for her to turn the car around, but as soon as I saw it, I knew that was wrong.  There was more than enough room to turn a car around, even a Mercedes.  Then I really started to wonder.  Why did she go on?  Why didn’t she realize she had made a mistake and stop, or go slowly, or ask the workers she saw for help?  Why on earth didn’t she just turn the car around and go out the same way she’d come in?  The answers never appeared.  The driver was permitted her privacy, even to not having to reveal her name publicly, and I don’t blame her for taking advantage of that.
            It is very unlikely we will ever find ourselves in the physical circumstances in which this driver found herself, but I see it as an apt metaphor for the way our spiritual lives sometimes go.  We know we are miserable at the job where we spend at least 40 hours a week, and that we would be happier working somewhere else, but we keep barreling along, afraid to make a change.  We continually promise ourselves that we will be kinder to those we love, but we get tired or angry or afraid and our tempers flare.  We say we will not abuse our bodies with unhealthy food, or with alcohol or drugs, but the next time our wills are weak, there we are, driving our spiritual Mercedes down the Verdugo wash, too frightened to stop, too lost to ask for help, too discouraged to turn around.  .  This is when we need a Hasidic rabbi standing beside us saying, “all you have to do is turn around!  It’s as simple as that!”
            This is what Yom Kippur is for, and what it is about.  We take a day off from our ordinary lives, and we spend it in contemplation, in self-reflection.  We refrain from our usual daily activities, including the essentials of food and drink.  May this day find you able to stop driving 70 mph to nowhere, to find the wisdom of slowing down, of listening to others, of being able to hear the voice saying, “All you have to do is turn around! It’s as simple as that!”.

The Duarte Festival Of Authors

Time on your hands this Saturday?  Come on out to Duarte and it's festival of Authors.  Steel Cut Press will have a table there and I will moderate a panel on pure fiction.

DUARTE, CA, September 10, 2012  –  Best-selling crime writer, T. Jefferson Parker, award-winning novelist Susan Straight, and celebrated poet, novelist, performer and activist, Juan Felipe Herrera, will headline the 10th annual Duarte Festival of Authors on Saturday, Oct. 6. The festival will take place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Westminster Gardens, 1420 Santo Domingo Ave. in Duarte.  Admission and parking is free.
The Duarte Festival of Authors presents a unique opportunity in an intimate setting for the public to meet and hear from some of Southern California’s top writers as well as exciting, new talents.
More than 50 authors will participate in the festival presented by the Friends of the Duarte Library. The festival showcases a rich sampling of the diversity of literary talents and books to appeal to a wide variety of tastes: fiction and non-fiction, adventure, suspense, romance, travel, mystery, inspirational, spiritual, poetry, educational, historical, young adult and children’s titles.
In addition to talks, panel discussions and book signings all day long, festival-goers are in for a host of other treats as well with an on-site book store and a choice of food and refreshments served up by the popular Pie and Burger Restaurant truck and Duarte’s Lemonade Brigade.
Juan Felipe Herrera is the award-winning author of 29 books including poetry, novels for young adults and collections for children. He will speak and sign his books at 12 noon, of which “Half the World in Light – New and Selected Poems” is his most recent. For nearly four decades Herrera has documented his experiences as a Chicano in the United States and Latin America through stunning memorable poetry that is both personal and universal in its impact, themes and approach. Earlier this year Herrera was named Poet Laureate for the State of California.
T. Jefferson Parker, who will speak and sign his books at 1:30 p.m., is a three-time recipient of the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award for best novel, and has won numerous other awards for his novels all dealing with crime, life and death in Southern California. His latest bestseller is “The Jaguar” which features protagonist Charlie Hood, a Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy on loan to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms task force working the illegal gun trade along the U.S. Mexican border.
Novelist Susan Straight, whose book, “Take One Candle Light a Room” was named one of the best novels of 2010 by the Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and Kirkus, will speak at 3 p.m. Following her talk, she will sign copies of her just released novel, “Between Heaven and Here,” also “A Million Nightingales,” a 2006 Finalist in the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and “Highwire Moon,” a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award.
Other authors scheduled to appear include: Mystery writers, Teresa Burrell, “The Advocate,” Gayle Carline, “Hit or Missus,” Michael Mayo,”Alex Walker and the Circus of Secrets,” Gayle Bartos-Pool, “The Johnny Casino Casebook,” and Alice Zogg, “Murder at the Cubbyhole”.
There will be lots of good books for children to choose from and special reading and other activities for the young ones. Among the authors participating will be: Alva Sachs, “I’m 5,” Jason Silva, “The Tale of Edgar Trunk” series, Ron Robledo, “How do you Hide a Dinosaur?,” Chani Warnasuriya, “Spooky Tales,” and Evelyn De Wolfe, “Conversations with Madame Zozo”.  Author, Chi Hosseinion’s “U Touch, I Tell” helps children learn how to protect themselves from predators.
Fiction writers include: David McCabe “Without Sin,” Rebecca Woods, “Living Through Charlie,” Lola James, “Bound to Remember,” and M. Adams, “For a Taste of Morgan”. Zuhdi Sardar’s “Between Iraq and Hard Places” paints a canvas of words that – in light of the Middle East’s recent “Arab Spring” – is both a metaphor of our times and mirror to us all.
Author/TV-radio personality, Manny Pacheco highlights character actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age and films telling America’s story in “Forgotten Hollywood,” while Hollywood movie historian, Mark Thomas McGee takes readers behind-the-scenes in the making of the classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and Gerald Schiller, details true tales from Tinseltown’s past in “It Happened in Hollywood: Remarkable Events that Shaped History”. Dennis Sanchez offers a humorous Wizard of Oz parody from Toto’s point of view in “Toto’s Adventures with Dorothy”.
Festival goers will find inspirational stories. “Joseph Borda’s “Across the Seas” is his personal immigrant account of serving in three wars and working on ships to earn the American citizenship for which he strived for years. “Living in the Mouth of the Wolf” by Sal DiVita provides authentic accounts of events as experienced by ordinary people in Fascist Italy during the Second World War. Others include: Chuck Robertson, “A Simple Man’s Story of Esther,” Glen Gibson, “Not the Way You Thought it Would Be,” Loa Blasucci, “All Health’s Breaking Loose,” Jesse Cozean, “My Grandfather’s War,” and Brenda Winner, “Ten Perfect Fingers”. Janie Speare offers advice to teens in “Standing Up, Standing Out,” and author/artist/peace ambassador, Petra Eiko brings her traveling Green Heart project to the festival, inviting visitors to inscribe what’s in their hearts.
Claudia and Alan Heller, take readers on a journey through The Mother Road in stories, pictures and reminiscences of “Life on Route 66,” Tim Poyorena-Miguel shares local history in “Return to Simons,” and Richard Santillan writes on the history of “Mexican American Baseball in L.A”.  Historian, Elizabeth Pomeroy offers a guide to historic and natural landmarks in Southern California in “Lost and Found,” and James Aguirre offers Native American history and perspective in his book “Through Native Eyes – Talking Leaves.
For the latest information about the Duarte Festival of Authors, participants and activities, visit the Festival website: www.friendsoftheduartelibrary.com, or call (626) 359-6413.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Denying Denial

I delivered this sermon to Congregation Atz Chaim in Ramona, California, on Yom Kippur morning, 10 Tishrei 5773 (26 September 2012)

  
I absolutely, categorically, and without exception reject reality.  Well, perhaps there are a few exceptions but for the most part I do, in fact, reject reality most of the time.  Here are some exceptions to my reality rejection rule.  The earth is round.  That appears to be an irrefutable reality that I do not reject.  We’ve seen the pictures from satellites and space shuttles.  And apparently some guy named Eratosthenes sometime between 276 and 194 Before the Common Era figured out that the earth was round by measuring the way the light fell straight down a well in one city but at an angle in another city and somehow came up with the notion that the earth was round.  So I get it that the shape of the earth is real and I accept that.  I also accept gravity not necessarily because some guy named Isaac Newton said that it exists but because when I release my hold on a book it falls to the floor.  So gravity is another reality I accept.  For the most part though, I do reject a lot of reality.  Well not a lot necessarily but some.  I reject some of reality.
            Because of this rejection of reality it might be said that I live in a state of denial.  Denial is an ego defense mechanism.  I utilize denial to help me get through the day.  There are a lot of other defense mechanisms:  Displacement helps me slam a door when I’m angry instead of hitting someone.  Intellectualization allows me to focus on the mechanics of a funeral instead of feeling grief.  When I use the defense mechanism of projection I am able to tell someone else that they are stupid instead of feeling stupid myself.  I use rationalization when I tell myself its okay to eat that donut because I only had coffee for breakfast.  The defense mechanism of regression tells me its okay to throw a temper tantrum when I don’t get my own way.  I can use repression to forget traumatic memories.  I can use suppression to accomplish the same thing.
            So you see, I have a lot of tools to help me reject reality or at least the one reality I have to reject.
            I’m not the only person who rejects that reality.  You do, too.  All of you.  Each and every person here spends a whole lot of time and energy avoiding the reality of our lives because if we didn’t reject that reality we’d have a really difficult time getting through the day.
            I’m not talking about the reality of paying bills or studying for tests or staying on diets or getting regular exercise or meeting work related deadlines though we certainly do our share of avoiding those realities on occasion.
            I’m talking about a much bigger reality and most of us most of the time use whatever defense mechanisms we can come up with to pretend that that particular reality doesn’t exist.  The reality we spend so much time avoiding or ignoring is, of course, our own mortality.  We are each and every one of us going to die.  We will not survive life.  We will not make it out of this alive.
            Knowing this, how can we possibly make it through the day?  Knowing that I will die, how can I even get out of bed?  And so – completely ignoring this hard, cold ultimate truth – I do get out of bed and I do make it through the day.  So do you.
            Death is a reality almost impossible to contemplate.  And yet this holiday, this Yom Kippur, is devoted to death.
            G’mar Ha’timah tovah.  May be final writing be for good.  May I be inscribed in the book of life.  On Rosh HaShannah it is written.  On Yom Kippur it is sealed.  Who shall live this year and who shall die?  Who shall live?  Me, me, me, me.  Who shall die?  Surely not me because I’ve already said that I reject the reality of death.  More specifically I reject the reality that I will one day die so none of those ‘who shall’ things can possibly apply to me.
            Yet here I am in the middle of this day of death forced if only one time each year to face the reality I so studiously avoid.  Here I am facing death.
            The day has given me opportunities to drop my guards – my defenses – by asking me to if not completely fast at least to do the best I can so that as the sun sets there will be little left of my reality rejections – of my primitive ego defenses.  I will if for no other reason simply be too tired to not ‘get it’ that one day I will die.
            And then to really drive that point home I will – as the sun sets on my day and metaphorically on my life – recite the death bed confession that ends Yom Kippur – Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad.  Baruch shame kvod malchuto l’olam vaed. Adonai hoo haeloheim.  Hear Oh Israel.   The Lord is our God.  The Lord is One.  Blessed is God’s Kingdom for ever and ever.  The Eternal Lord is God.
            Perhaps then during that moment before the final gasping blast of the shofar ends this day of dying I may let in the sobering reality that my days are numbered.   And if I can withstand the terror of that moment I may truly as the gates of heaven close dare to walk away from my deathbed confession and my long day of dying to a life more urgent and more real than that lived before this day began.
            That is the purpose of this day of awesome dread.  We begin it proudly wearing our suits of denial like the Emperor and his new clothes and we end it shrouded in the humble knowing that life is precious and oh so very short.
            The gates are still open on this day but let’s go ahead and put aside all of the defenses and denials and rejections that keep us from deciding what we want and must do with our – in the words of the Mary Oliver poem read last night -- one precious life knowing with absolute certainty that it will end.
            Right now.  Let’s put aside all of that and get to the work of this practice dying.  Once a year we get to ‘get it’ and then and only on this day walk away from our death bed confessions to lives hopefully changed for the better.
            Today is our pretend death day.  What we do with it is our choice.  What we do with our precious time after the final shofar blast of this year is also our choice.  We decide our final inscriptions.
            Gmar hatimah tovah.  May my final inscription be for good.  Gmar hatimah tovah.  May your final inscription also be for good.  This dying day belongs to each of us.  So, too, does the choice of how we live our precious days belongs to each of us.
            Gmar hatimah tovah.  May the final inscription be for good.