You Can Go Home Again…But Do I Want To?

The kids and I just returned from an eight-day trip to the East Coast. My cousin got married, and as long as we were going back East to attend the Long Island wedding, I figured we’d pop up to the Boston area to check out a few colleges for Danny, maybe see some old friends, visit with family in the New York-New Jersey area….

The best-laid plans, as they say. Danny changed career paths about a month ago, so until he figures out where he wants to go to college, there’s not much point in visiting campuses, other than driving through some just to say we’ve been there. My sisters-in-law were away with their families. We did spend a few hours visiting one because she lives not even half an hour from where we were staying for the wedding. And we did have a lovely visit with our former neighbors; in fact, we stayed with them, across the street from our old house. It happens that while we were there, yet another family was moving in, having bought the house from the people who purchased it from us. The house was suffering from a kind of benign neglect. My rose bushes had all been taken out; all that was left was a single, blackened stump with fungi growing from it. The swing set had been removed because it had deteriorated, leaving in its stead the giant sandbox, now badly overrun with weeds, in which we had originally erected the set. Overgrown, too, was the area behind the sandbox; I couldn’t find the pink and white lilacs we had planted. It was painful to see. We hoped to see a Red Sox game, but they were sold out. We wanted to go watch the Patriots practice, but on the day we wanted to do that, practice was in the morning, and that was when Danny and I had an appointment to visit Boston University. After that visit, Danny and I stopped by Barry’s old law firm. While it was fun seeing his former partners, it was bittersweet.

We did enjoy the cookout our host had for all our former cul-de-sac neighbors. It was pleasant catching up with one another. I reveled in our visit to Skipjack’s, an old favorite, where I had proper steamers with drawn butter and whole fried clams–no fancy wine-and-garlic broth or processed clam strips served, thank you very much. And the visit to the Patriots’ pro shop was fun, even if I did get a little carried away. Did Sparky really need a Patriots dog leash? And a Patriots food mat? Did I actually think Danny will use that Patriots book cover?

So what did I learn from our visit? Well, mosquitoes still love me. I have bites all over my ankles and arms to prove it. And humidity and my hair still don’t get along. I didn’t get the chance to have “real” apples, but I suspect there will be a fall tour of Boston-area colleges on Danny’s and my schedule, so that chance will present itself another time. (Oh, to see foliage. Fall foliage. Or, as Danny says, “Leaves, Mom. They’re leaves.”)

Mostly, I learned that while it was nice visiting, I’m happy where I am. Yes, I miss autumn. But I don’t miss slush, humidity, mosquitos, or sudden thunderstorms. It was more than 100 degrees here today in Westlake Village, but I’ll take that over 80 degrees with 80 percent humidity any day. Just send a few cider donuts my way come fall.

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Waiting for Carmageddon?

Like many Angelenos, I’m viewing this coming weekend with some trepidation. The section of the 405 that connects the San Fernando Valley to West Los Angeles will be closed for some 53 hours while one side of an overpass–the Mulholland Bridge–is taken down. There are plenty of articles to be found on the Internet or in newspapers. The Skirball Cultural Center and the Getty Museum will be closed. (I wonder, how much money they will lose this weekend?) I listen to a popular local news radio station, and for the past two weeks or so, “Carmageddon” has come up at least eight times an hour: at the top of the news hour, at the bottom, and during the traffic reports that occur every ten minutes. And, of course, we get to do it all over again next summer, when the other half of the bridge will be taken down.

I plan on watching it all from the comfort of my family room. There is nowhere I need to be. My mom came to visit; fortunately, she planned her trip after the announcement, so she arrived on Wednesday and won’t be leaving until Tuesday. My nephew Louis–her grandson–arrives from Seattle on Saturday to stay with a family friend, Rhys, for a few weeks. At least Louis is flying into Burbank. (My brother wanted to send Louis via LAX but was quickly disabused of that idea. I believe the phrase “Are you insane?” was uttered.) And while it might be nice for Mom to see my nephew, she visited Seattle recently. Rhys and I are currently in a holding pattern, waiting to see what Carmageddon traffic will be like and trying to decide which of us will be brave enough–or stupid enough–to travel to make a family visit possible.

All this chit chat is by way of getting to my own personal theory about Carmageddon. One version or the other–this summer’s or next year’s–will be the nightmare pundits are predicting. We just don’t yet know which one. It’s possible this weekend will go smoothly. Perhaps the project will even finish ahead of schedule (probably wishful thinking). Then next summer, people will think, “Hey, that wasn’t so bad. I don’t need to leave town. I can use the alternate routes and surface roads and go about as I normally would.” Get enough people thinking like that, and next summer we’ll have a mess that’s even worse than what’s been predicted for this weekend.

The other possibility is that this weekend is at least as bad as people are expecting. If that happens, when phase two rolls around, more people will flee the area for the weekend, making it easier for those left behind to get about.

Somewhere in Los Angeles, at least one person has already printed up “I survived Carmageddon” T-shirts, key chains and mugs, and is simply waiting until Monday morning to hawk them. It’s just too bad that we’ll have to wait until next summer to find out if that’s really true.

Seder Plate Musings

The seders are over. The last dish has been washed. The ritual objects—seder plate, Elijah’s cup, frog dish to catch the wine drops during the recitation of the ten plagues (yes, we actually have that—the dish, not the plagues), afikomen holder made by one of the kids as a Sunday school project, copies of the Maxwell House haggadah—have been carefully wrapped back up and put away for next year. This year, we actually remembered to both water the parsley seeds Emily planted on Tu B’Shevat and cut the sprigs to use during the seder. Ennui has set in. We’re on our third or fourth box of matzah, and about the fifth dozen carton of eggs. And it’s only the third day of Passover. So I thought I’d look back and think about the seder plate and all its symbols, and, more importantly, about some of the more modern symbols that have become a part of the Pesach celebration.

Traditionally, the seder plate contains five items: baitza, the egg, symbolizing the circle of life; zeroa, the shankbone, symbolizing the paschal lamb and the blood on the doorposts; maror, bitter herb, for the bitterness of slavery; karpas, parsley, for spring; and haroset, for the mortar used to cement bricks. Some seder plates include a sixth item, hazeret, a second bitter herb, often used in making the Hillel sandwich.

In recent years, other items have found their way onto the seder plate or the table, and it is these items I want to briefly discuss. Some may be more familiar than others. For example, many of us add a Miriam’s cup filled with water to the table, a parallel of sorts to Elijah’s wine-filled cup. Why water? It symbolizes the well of fresh water said to accompany Miriam, and thus the Israelites, on their wanderings in the desert. When Miriam died, the well disappeared.

Some families add a piece of cooked fish to the seder plate to honor Miriam. There are two other cooked items—the shankbone and the egg. Together, the three cooked items honor the three people responsible for leading the Israelites in the desert, as it is said in the book of Micah: “And I sent before you Moses, and Aaron, and Miriam” (Micah 6:4).

Another more common item is an orange. Supposedly, the orange is there because a man once said that there would be a woman on the bima—in other words, a woman as rabbi—when there was an orange on the seder plate. Actually, the orange is a symbol of inclusion, and the idea originated with Professor Susannah Heschel, daughter of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. She writes: “During the first part of the Seder, I asked everyone to take a segment of the orange, make the blessing over fruit, and eat it as a gesture of solidarity with Jewish lesbians and gay men, and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community.…In addition, each orange segment had a few seeds that had to be spit out—a gesture of spitting out, repudiating the homophobia that poisons too many Jews.” (http://tinyurl.com/3r5zhgk)

Another item added to the seder plate in recent years is the olive. Why an olive? The olive branch has been a traditional symbol of peace for centuries. We try to make peace when there is war. So the olive has come to represent hope for peace in the Middle East. Another explanation for the olive is that olive groves in the Middle East are a commodity, providing economic security to families. By enabling families to feed themselves, they are freed from economic slavery.

Finally, some families, especially those with pets, add a dog bone to the seder plate. Why? Because tradition tells that during the Exodus, as the Jews were leaving, not a single dog barked, as it is said in the Book of Exodus: “But against any of the children of Israel shall not a dog move his tongue, against man or beast: that you may know how Adonai differentiates between the Egyptians and Israel” (11:7).

What items did you add to your seder plate this year?

Missing Lauren

I’m taking advantage of my small but steadily growing web presence to spread the word about a missing teen. Lauren Priskorn has been missing since January 31. She and my son Ben were friends in middle school. My heart goes out to Lauren’s parents and twin brother. For more information, see here: http://tinyurl.com/49b376g

UPDATE: Lauren has been found and is home with her family. Thank you all for your thoughts and prayers. (Updated 5 p.m. PST.)

Valentine’s Day Musings

Today we are surrounded by hearts, flowers and chocolates. Yes, people, it’s that time of year again. Today is Valentine’s Day.

Personally, I’m not a big fan. It would be easy — and a cliché — to say I’m still brokenhearted over Barry’s death, but that’s simply not true. Yes, I miss him. I always will. But life goes on, and if the pain never quite goes away, it at least gets put aside, to be periodically taken out and brooded over. And that will remain true even if I’m fortunate enough to meet someone else down this road we call life. So while I’ll be thinking of Barry on and off today, that’s not why I’m not a big Valentine’s Day person.

Valentine’s Day is like Halloween and Christmas. It’s become so commercialized we’ve forgotten its origins. The holiday was originally St. Valentine’s Day, and it marked the martyrdom of not one but two (and possibly three) saints by that name on February 14. In fact, according to Wikipedia (which I would never quote when editing or writing “serious” work, but hey, this a blog!), the first valentine card may well have been sent by — wait for it — Valentine himself, to an unknown lady as he was waiting to be executed. If you want to know more, search “first valentine card” or “valentine day history”; you’ll end up with plenty to read.

Back to my personal thoughts on Valentine’s Day. As soon as the Christmas decorations in stores came down, the Valentine’s decorations went up. (Tomorrow, the decorations for St. Patrick’s Day and Easter will begin appearing. You’ll see.) The boxes of candy, the cards. The boxes of cards. And the flowers. Roses are everywhere, and at outrageous prices, because somewhere along the way, it became traditional to give flowers, especially roses and particularly red roses, on Valentine’s Day. Here’s the thing, though. All those perfect roses at $50 a dozen have almost no smell. They look alike. They are boring in their perfection. The roses in my garden smell better, and I think they’re prettier, too. And chocolate is chocolate; no matter what day of the year it is, a day without chocolate is a day without sunshine as far as I’m concerned.

I never wanted flowers on Valentine’s Day. Barry understood that, although he would still sometimes bring me chocolate. (Of course, he would also then help me consume it, so we’re possibly dealing with an ulterior motive here.) I never wanted them on our anniversary. I don’t want flowers on my birthday or on Mother’s Day. It’s on some of the other 362 (363 in leap years) days that I want flowers and chocolate. (My math is fine. I’m not counting my anniversary.) I want flowers and chocolate from someone who wants to give them to me just because — not because custom says he’s supposed to on a particular day. And if that special someone doesn’t think to get them for me, that’s okay. I’ll treat myself.

I’m going to take my coffee outside now into my garden and sniff my roses, which are starting to bloom because of the warm spell we had last month. And then tomorrow, the day after Valentine’s Day, I’m going to treat myself to chocolate — at half price.

The Writer’s Crusade

I’ve joined a crusade…the Writer’s Crusade. As I understand it, fellow blogger Rachel Harrie will be faciliating for a group of bloggers. We will follow one another, support one another, and help one another become better writers. If you’re interested, you have until midnight EST tonight. Here’s the link:

http://rachaelharrie.blogspot.com/2011/02/second-writers-platform-building.html

Somehow, I doubt this will be as bloody as the crusades during the Middle Ages — and I bet it will be a lot more fun!

Four Chaplains Day

Today is Four Chaplains Day. Coming the day after Groundhog Day, when people are still talking about Punxsutawney Phil and his shadow, especially given the winter so far, we’re not hearing too much about what today is about. But I did a little digging and I thought I’d briefly share the chaplains’ story. (By the way, despite the date on the blog, I wrote this on February 3, so I stand by my opening “Today is….”)

The four chaplains — Reverend George L. Fox (Methodist), Rabbi Alexander D. Goode (Jewish), Reverend Clark V. Poling (Dutch Reformed) and Father John P. Washington (Roman Catholic) — were all serving on the U.S.A.T. Dorchester during World War Two. The Dorchester, a liner, had been pressed into service as a trasnport ship. On February 3, 1943, a German sub torpedoed the Dorchester. Many of the men were below decks and panicked. The four chaplains moved among the men, calming fears and handing out lifejackets. When no more lifejackets remained, each chaplain took his off and gave it to a soldier. Survivors of the sinking told how the four chaplains stood at the rails, arms linked, saying prayers and singing hymns as the Dorchester sunk.

Posthumously, the four men received numerous honors and recognition. The U.S. Postal Service issued a comemorative stamp in 1948. A special award, the Chaplain’s Medal of Heroism, authorized by an act of Congress, was awarded to the men’s next of kin in 1961. (This was in addition to the Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Cross, also awarded posthumously.) A beautiful stained glass window memorializing the men can be found in the War Memorial Chapel of the National Cathedral. In 1988, Congress resolved unanimously that February 3 be observed as Four Chaplains Day in honor of the clergymen’s heroism.

In these times we live in, with radical extremists of many faiths (I hesitate to say “every faith,” although it sometimes seems that way) committing acts of violence in the name of God, we should all take a moment to remember these four chaplains, whose courage in the face of death remains an example to us all. I doubt that any of them paused to ask a soldier’s faith before giving aid. They simply helped and guided and sacrificed, so that men — Not Jews or Catholics or Protestants — would live.

In Judaism, when someone dies, we say of the person “may his (or her) memory be a blessing.” We don’t need to say it of George Fox, Alexander Goode, Clark Poling, or John Washington. We know that they are.

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