Friday, January 31, 2014

Giving and Taking



This week’s Torah portion, Terumah (Ex. 25:1 – 27:19) as well as the two weekly portions that follow it, provide specific instructions for building a Tabernacle to worship God, and in which God’s presence will actually dwell among the people of Israel.   Every detail is laid out: the materials, the colors of the fabrics, the size and shape of each item which will be built and used.  And once the sanctuary is built, God will dwell there among the people of Israel.

All this specific description seems foreign to the God we have come to know up till this point in the book of Exodus.  God has seemed determined to be formless and transcendent; a pillar of fire here and a cloud upon a mountain there.  Why is God suddenly acting like one of the Ancient Near Eastern deities for whom their worshipers built palaces?  Perhaps it is because the Israelites needed it.
Modern Torah commentator Umberto Cassuto writes that at Mount Sinai, the people felt God’s presence, but “once they set out on their journey, it seemed to them as though the link had been broken, unless there were in their midst a tangible symbol of God’s presence among them.  It was the function of the Tabernacle to serve as such a symbol”.   

Common sense would tell us that God doesn’t need a sanctuary in which to dwell; God’s presence fills the whole universe.  But we need material objects to remind us of God’s incorporeal presence. Even though the Torah portion begins, “Bring Me gifts”, the Tabernacle is the gift God gives to Israel, not the other way around.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Feelings of the Stranger



This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, (Ex. 21:1 – 24:18) is a compendium of all kinds of laws: civil, criminal, and ritual.  But one moral dictum is repeated twice in this portion and many more times throughout the rest of the Torah.  Exodus 22:20 states, “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  And Exodus 23:9, only eighteen verses later, reads, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” 

The great medieval commentator Rashi explains that in the first verse, to wrong a stranger means to taunt him, and to oppress him means to take advantage of him, for example by stealing his money.  In the second instance, Rashi comments on the word “feelings”, saying, and “…because you know how hard it is for him when people oppress him”.  

For either the Torah or a classic commentator to remark on feelings is an extraordinary departure from the norm.  It further indicates the importance of this precept and it brings the message home in a way that intellectual reasoning cannot do.  If oppression feels bad to you, then it also feels bad to any person or people who are being oppressed.  To be able to put yourself in the place of another and imagine their pain is not an easy task, but the Torah tells us—over and over again—that it is something we have to do.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Diner to Remember

I thought I was pretty familiar with this part of New Jersey.  My parents lived here for almost thirty years, and I lived here myself for a short time about five years ago.  I certainly thought I was familiar with the establishment called the Americana Diner on Route 130 in East Windsor.  I have eaten there for years.  As I remembered it, it was your typical New Jersey diner with a ten page menu, breakfast available all day, good burgers and fries.  So now that we live here, I brought the Other Family Human in for what I thought would be a typical New Jersey diner meal. 

The building certainly looked as it always had from the outside, but looking in the windows from the parking lot, I could see they had remodeled.  The booths with the faux leather coverings were gone.  There were tables with comfortable chairs and the lighting was soft and stylish.  But the real shock came when I saw the menu.  Grass-fed beef.  Locally purchased organic vegetables.  Fresh bread and pastries baked in-house.  What was this?

Well, they still consider themselves a diner.  In fact, the place was named best diner in New Jersey by the New Jersey Star-Ledger newspaper.  Owner Constantine Katsifis writes in his bio on the diner's website, "Constantine is working diligently to change the paradigm in what we expect in a restaurant and improving our quality of life with better nutrition."  Better nutrition at a diner? You'd better believe it. We got over our surprise and ordered dinner.  Our plates were works of art to behold and empty when we were finished.  The food was fantastic. We'll be back.  You think you know a place and then you find you were wrong.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

What The Hay?!

 Take a close look at the photograph.
Early yesterday afternoon the snow began falling.
To mark the rate and depth of the snow I kept my eye on -- well not steadily on but intermittently on - a bale of hay.
A standard bale of hay, in case you were wondering, is generally about two feet wide, four feet long, and about two feet tall.
Last night just before it got too dark to see about four inches of the top of the bale were still visible.
Here's your task now.
Find the bale of hay.
This picture was taken this morning.
It is now afternoon.
The landscape still looks the same.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Canadian Geese Are A Lot Like Cattle

Okay, so they don't have four hooves or cuds even though they may re-chew their food from time to time but over the past several days I've had multiple opportunities to observe thousands of Canadian Geese and during my life I've had thousands of opportunities to observe multiple varieties of cattle and my conclusion is that cows and geese have one particular and striking similarity.  Side bar comment -- That's about as long as I can make that opening sentence.  Now onward to the very short point of this post.  Geese when not flying and just standing around tend to all face the same direction.  So do cows except, of course, that cows are never flying.  They do on occasion jump but that's just over the moon.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

So That's Why We Carry Jumper Cables

I don't know how to use them and on some level they terrify me.  But there they are always rattling around in the trunk of the car.  One morning during this past week circumstances forced me to venture out to the nearest grocery story.  It was cold and windy. Earlier that morning snow fell in heavy clumps.  Had we not been out of milk and bread and, well, just about everything else I wouldn't have even considered leaving the condo.  I pulled into the first available space in the parking lot of the Stop and Shop.  Only when I was getting out of the car did I notice the man standing in front of the van parked next to me.  The hood was raised.  He stood in front of it staring into the mystery of the internal combustion engine.  Back in La La Land I probably would have just gone on about my business but cold and snow and wind seem to change the way people interact.
"Hello," I said loudly because the wind picked up just as I spoke.  "I have jumper cables.  Would that help?"
The man smiled and said, "That might just fix everything."
"I have them but I don't know how to use them."
"I don't have then but I sure do know how to use them."
We were shouting at each other because that's how you speak in a windy snow storm.
While he taught me to use jumper cables he said that he had just moved down from upstate New York.
"Where it's warmer?" I shouted.
"That's right," he shouted back.
Today was his wife's birthday and he had gone into the store to buy her flowers.  His battery had been failing and, when he accidentally left his lights on while he was choosing the flowers, it died.
With the jumper cables it started right up.
"I felt so lost," he shouted over the wind.  "I didn't know who to call and then you just appeared.  It's a miracle."
"Tell your wife happy birthday for me," and with that I tossed the cables back into the trunk and went inside to buy oatmeal.
Welcome to New Jersey.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Waiting For The Boxes

There are times when we are in between realities.  The movers came and took with them the furniture and the dishes, the dreams that never materialized, the plans that didn't work out, and the happy moments in a home occupied too long.  There are also times when the movers are not yet in the new home to unpack the dishes and the furniture and the paintings bringing with them space for new plans and dreams and more opportunities for happy moments.  Here I am.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Learning A New Language

And I only moved across country but where I came from we called our freeways by name or number with the word 'the' in front.  So The Ten might have referred to The Santa Monica Freeway or The San Bernardino Freeway.  The Five was The Golden State Freeway.  You get my drift.  There is no 'the' here in New Jersey.  Ninety-five (95) is just that as is 33 or 35.
And the folks here take umbrage if you (meaning I) put the 'the' in front of the number.
Go figure and let me know if you do.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Dumpsters Are Addictive

More addictive than any street drug is the dumpster delivered to your garage or drive way or parking space.  Once there it must be filled.  I heartily encourage everyone to rent a dumpster at least every other year.  They are the perfect solution to clutter and to saving things just because you have room for them.  Trust me.  You won't stop tossing life detritus into them until they are filled.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Challenges of Change

Liminal times can be unsettling.  We aren't where we were nor are we where we will be soon.  So we feel off balance.  The expectation is that once we cross that threshold things will be steady again.  Not so fast, bud.  Regaining balance takes some time.  Always looking for the quick fix, we naturally believe that once the change happens life will return to normal.  Problem is 'normal' no longer exists and while we adjust to the new normal life may continue to feel out of sync, off balance.  Perhaps knowing this will help us adjust sooner or at least be a bit kinder to ourselves.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

It's Different And Still The Same

Change is, well, change.  Nothing is the same and yet keeping some things the same helps with the change.  Having just moved across country I can speak to the power of hanging on to something from the previous address.  I'm not talking keeping the same faucet or the same  light bulb.  I'm talking about daily habits such as taking a walk or reading a book.  We can be sustained by seemingly mundane activities.  They calm the chaos.  Even without a cross country move, life can be fairly chaotic.  We can calm the chaos by doing something that sustains us even if it is as simple as writing a few lines or reading a few pages.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Cavalcade Of Interesting Characters

Over the past several days I have been privileged to meet a number of really interesting people.  Today's interesting guy came into our new home unannounced and I at first suspected unbidden.  Come to find out we had requested his services but generally people call to announce their arrival instead of just walking into the house.  Or at least that was my understanding.  At any rate, the garage door in our new home stopped working and I couldn't figure out how to get it off the track to manually close it.  Ordinarily this situation wouldn't be of concern.  However, with the wind chill factored in this afternoon's temperature was sixteen below and, since the garage is attached to the house I didn't want any open doors come night and even lower temperatures.  So in walked Mr. Leo Richard Hummer who from the foot of the stairs asked if anyone was home.  "Yes!" I hollered back down the stairs.  Hollering was the only way to be heard because the dog was barking really loudly.  Mr. Hummer's next question was, "Is that a Basset Hound?"  By that time I was downstairs still unclear as to Mr. Hummer's reason for standing at the foot of our stairs quizzing us on seemingly random topics.  Not wanting to be unfriendly I told him that, yes, it was a barking Basset Hound.  Only then did I inquire as to the nature of his visit.
"I'm Hummer and your garage door isn't working," he replied content that all my questions were now answered.
And, in fact, they were.  I had heard that someone named Hummer repaired garage doors.  I had not heard that he communicated with them and could respond to their squeaky pleas for help.  That took me by surprise on a day when few other things surprised me.
Within five minutes I had learned that Mr. Hummer had trained dogs for over seventeen years.  When I asked of he could train a Basset Hound he advised that any dog could be trained.  The problems were always with the humans and never the dogs.  He left the dog training world to enter the culinary arts world and was a chef for a number of years.  Then he joined the army.  Upon discharge he opened his garage door repair business and made more money in that field than in dog training and cooking combined.  I guess his army salary didn't matter.  At any rate, once in the garage door repair business, Mr. Hummer was able to put all of his children through college.  Now they all have good jobs and are responsible citizens.  Quite an accomplishment in this day and age, I assured him.  He agreed.
At the end of five minutes I also learned that today was too cold to repair anything but that when the weather warmed up I should call Mr. Hummer and he would return and repair the garage door.  He did get it to close which was really all I wanted anyway.
Oh, yeah.  Mr. Hummer didn't charge me for closing the garage door and telling his story.  Once your kids are out of college you can do that sort of thing, I suppose.
Now if he'll only come back and train the Basset Hound to put on his own snood we'll be all set.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Polar Vortex Settles In

Apparently we are experiencing a Polar Vortex which boils down in an oxymoronic sort of way to really cold weather.  We're talking really cold weather.  So cold, in fact, that the Basset Hound did not object to going out for his last of the evening stroll wearing his snood.  He suspects he looks a bit idiotic but we assured him that in weather this cold no one wants to look cool.

Some Basset But Not Bradford
And, when he came back inside his nine inch ears were warm.  A Polar Vortex has no power over a Basset wearing a snood.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Great Adventure Continues

So yesterday Bradford the Basset Hound romped (still visiting new friends in Kentucky) in snow for the first time.  The romp was perhaps a bit ungainly since he sank into the snow up to his belly but nevertheless a romp is a romp.  All great adventures, of course, eventually end and this evening the cross country chapter of his adventure will conclude with, naturally, Bradford entering his new home perhaps hours before his humans arrive.  Such is the life of a dog.
Meanwhile I look forward to beginning the next Maisie Dobbs book which I've been saving for just this occasion.  The picture of discipline, I will read that book next in spite of the fact that a friend gave me a novel of literary significance which I should read right away but more about that later.
For now it's sleuthing with Maisie and, of course, looking forward to seeing Bradford and hearing about his travels.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Day Three of His Great Adventure

At 5:30 this morning Bradford and his friend Mike arrived at Mike's home in Kentucky.  They spent the day napping and, in Bradford's case, taking first steps in snow.  Mike says Bradford kept trying to bite the snow.  Luckily for Bradford, his 3 1/2 inch paws can function as snow shoes.  Bradford has also spent a good part of the day supervising Mrs. Mike.  Tomorrow the two buddies will presumably hit the road again and head for New Jersey.
Wednesday afternoon to Friday morning California to Kentucky.  That is traveling.  I can only assume that Bradford did his share of the driving.

THE MENTOR

I think we all have 1 or 2, heck maybe more during our lifetime. I first met her at a previous place of employment. She was a social work intern, but light years ahead of her peers, she was different, she stood her ground, spoke her opinion and never backed down. I didn't understand it at the time, however was quite fascinated by the phenomenon of it. I never able to 'read' her and thought to myself well, I can't read her but can I be more like her? I mean she had a presence. During our time working together, my wife became pregnant with our first child. I remember struggling with the administrative types to get time off. I had a nuclear meltdown one day because of this. I remember my mentor being present, perhaps I knew that it was "safe"to have said meltdown in front of her. Instead of consoling me, she spoke to me, like an adult, she validated me but didn't baby me. I was able to put my big boy pants back on that day and I carried on. She departed shortly thereafter and moved on to other things in her career as did I. Strange as it may seem, I thought about her at times and often told the aforementioned story to people and how much it meant to me. A little over 7 years ago, I needed a job, I emailed my mentor ( she still had no clue at that point) an inquired about a job. I recalled the story, I'm not sure if she remembered, but she gave me an opportunity and hired me!. I told her early on, "I'm not the same Shawn." Not sure she was sold on this. Through the years, we found that we had some things in common, Baseball, family, our macabre sense of humor amongst many other things. Although I was initially kept at a distance, she gradually took me under her wing and let me in. She taught me things not just about work but about life, I mean, are bosses supposed to do this? I asked myself this regularly. I watched her and how she handled extremely difficult situations with ease. I don't mean these were easy situations, I mean she was unflinching. I tried to emulate her, knowing I could never be as good, but I didn't care, I was working with my mentor. We got to the point where we sat and spoke frequently, I got to learn things about her that nobody else knew, in a lot of ways, I felt like I was thumbing my nose at others who would never have this same opportunity. I finally confided to her one day that I had always wanted to be her friend, it took nerve. We reached a point in our time working together where we were inseparable. "Shawn, you two handle things exactly alike." A co-worker said that to me one day, I was floored, me?..really? I thought about quitting that day, because in the hierarchy of praise, it gets no better. Despite being one of my dearest friends, she remained my mentor, the cat was clearly out of the bag by that time she knew. Time obviously goes by and people move on. As of 5PM today, my mentor has moved on to greener pastures and while I am very happy for her, I will miss her, miss our talks, miss her insight, miss her confidence, I could go on and on. Perhaps one day we will work to ether again, maybe soon. Until then, I will put on those same big boy pants from some 15 years ago and honor her teachings and her mentoring but doing everything I can to pay it forward. At a minimum, I owe that to her.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Bradford's Great Adventure Day Two

Astonishingly, Bradford and his new best friend Mike Avery are making such remarkable time they are going to chill at Mike's home in Kentucky -- shower, eat food not served in a Honda Civic, meet Mrs. Mike -- that sort of thing.  They last checked in from St. Louis.
Did they only leave yesterday afternoon?
Bradford's Great Adventure is going by very quickly.
But, of course, that's the case with all adventures great and small and especially this adventure called life.
Cherish every moment of the journey.
We know that's what Bradford is doing.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Bradford's Great Adventure Begins

The man's name is Mike Avery and he owns a unique business -- Pet Transport Express Service.  http://www.petexpresstransportservice.com/Home.html 
He drives dogs.  And so it was that Mike and Bradford the Basset Hound left between the Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl headed for New Jersey.  Bradford fell in love with Mike immediately.  They called from the I15 just before the I40.  Apparently Bradford was insisting they take a quick side trip to Las Vegas but Mike stuck to the plan and off the went east on the 40 with the blizzard in front and to the north.  They called again a little while ago to report that all was well -- they both ate dinner, took a walk, and hit the road.  We'll keep you posted.
Bradford and His New Best Buddy