Not Taken For Granted

Last week my wife and I went to a funeral.  And while going to funerals is a more common experience for those of use in our 50s than it was for a decade ago, it’s still not that common an experience, especially when it’s a peer.

The deceased was a guy about my age (56 — died of pancreatic cancer) who had retired recently from New York State government, where he spent 30 years working in computer and systems’ related positions.  He and his wife were members of our synagogue and also were quite involved the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA).  They didn’t have any children, and we weren’t particularly close, but we were part of the same community and saw each other pretty frequently, especially at synagogue where this man was a fixture, coming most Friday nights and always sitting in the same spot in our small sanctuary as well as doing lots of “behind the scenes” stuff there.  Many of us remarked at his funeral that there should have been a little plaque with his name on it on the chair.

After the funeral, my wife and I got into a long discussion about how we should be better about reaching out to those people, like our deceased friend, and inviting them over for dinner on Friday nights or just letting them know that we care about them even we don’t necessarily think of ourselves as “close”.  Hard to have people over for dinner when they are gone.

May his memory be for a blessing and may it inspire others to carry on his legacy of quiet support for the community.

Fourteen for ’14

Been a long time since I put a post together.  Not sure where the time went but thought that the end of 2013 was a good time to reengage with this.  So here goes with 14 thoughts for 2014.  In no particular order, here they are:

  1. Turning 55 — biggest event of the year was hitting the “double nickel” birthday in late November.  While I thought that it would hit me in the same way that turning 50 did (i.e., wow I am really a middle-aged guy now), it didn’t.  I feel good and am generally happy with where my life is right now (happy marriage, generally satisfied professionally, kids seem to moving ahead with their lives, extended family doing okay, etc).
  2. Teaching Revelations — I have spent the year teaching college full-time (four courses a semester with about 100 students or so), so I have a number of thoughts about this (probably more than I can fit here).  Bottom line is that the students at the top are the same students at the top when I was a student in the 1970s.  They are conscientious, intellectually curious and focused on the task at hand.  The students at the bottom are also the same students that dwelt there way back when and for the same reasons (the opposite characteristics of the top students — lazy, unfocused and not curious).  The problem is that, unlike when I was a college student, there are not very many students in the middle.  That is, I have a bi-modal distribution of students, which makes it quite tough to teach.  Do I aim at the top and leave the bottom behind or do I aim at the bottom and bore the top to tears?  Tough to know what to do, isn’t it?
  3. Yoga —  I have really enjoyed doing yoga this year and have found it a great way to increase flexibility and reduce stress.  I particularly enjoy the “savasana” (the relaxation exercise at the end of the practice), which ironically is often the part of the class that many people pack up and leave before.  It kind of defeats the purpose of the yoga practice, doesn’t it?
  4. Baseball —  As a lifelong NY Yankees‘ fan, it pains me to say this, but I actually was glad that the Red Sox won the World Series. I had hoped that the Yankees could learn that a winning team can be put together without breaking the bank and signing over the hill players for a ton of dough.  Yet they seem not to have gotten this lesson and will be destined to be a mediocre expensive team yet again next year.
  5. Sportscasting — Why are there so many bad sportscasters out there?  You would think that given the sports crazy society we live in that there would be a demand for quality people on the sidelines and in the booth, but if someone says “scoring the basketball” again I will scream!  Let’s hope that John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman exit stage left and make room for some decent new talent there as well.
  6. Tattoos — I know that I am an officially an old fart with this comment, but I still don’t get tattoos, especially the cover the arms and the neck style that so many professional athletes have.  What’s the point, really?  You are going to need to get them removed at some point when they sag and fade, aren’t you?
  7. The Weather Channel — I like weather.  I like to follow it and like the statistics about it and used to love watching The Weather Channel to get my fix.  However, watching it now is like watching a train wreck.  We don’t get the weather each day, we get the coming of the apocalypse.  Why can’t you just broadcast the weather and ditch the hyperbole?  Do we really need to name winter storms?  Don’t think so….
  8. Master of Sex — My wife thinks that the new Showtime drama about William Masters and Virginia Johnson appeals to my prurient interest, but I disagree.  This is one of the best shows on television, with good writing, well thought out real characters and yes some sex to boot.  Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen are terrific as the leads, but there is a good supporting cast as well.  This has replaced Boardwalk Empire as my favorite cable drama (that show got way too gory for my tastes).
  9. The New York Times — I love the Times and have since I started getting it every day in the 1970s while a student, but I am a little concerned about the continued exodus of good writers from it.  This year David Pogue, the tech writer par excellant, left to go to Yahoo to do his thing there.  Too bad as I loved his “state of the art” column in the Times and probably won’t follow him to Yahoo.  Let’s hope they don’t lose too many other quality writers.
  10. Public Radio — I am so happy that I can get good public radio stations from other areas to listen to on a regular basis.  I now have the WBUR (Boston) app on my phone and can get WNNZ (Amherst) in my car, so I don’t have to listen to our local station and its now almost continuous fundraising appeals.  What other station would announce its February fund drive in mid-December?  No other station, that’s who.
  11. Tennis — I am now playing tennis year round two or three times a week and am enjoying it more than ever.  I think I have figured out that the reason that so many people play tennis well into their 60s and 70s and even 80s is because it’s a fun game that can be adapted as you age.  You may run a little slower and not get to shots you might have once upon a time, but that’s where the brain comes in and makes adjustments.  I also love the fact that our 7 am tennis group is like a big family that cares for each other in good times and in bad.
  12. Friends — As I wrote during the summer, we have reconnected with lots of old friends this year, and it has made me realize that our lives might be short but they can be rich as well.  I hope that in the coming years I will be able to be a better friend to all.
  13. Family — In addition to realizing the blessing of friends, I also know that I am lucky to have a good and supportive family who loves me even if I have the occasionally screw-up.  Let’s hope that we can continue to support each other in the weeks and years ahead.
  14. 2014 — My wish to all is for a happy and peaceful year ahead.

The Friends’ Connection

“Make new friends but keep the old.  One is silver and the other gold.”

I learned this song at summer camp over 40 years ago and always thought it was kind of trite, but now that I am in my mid-50s I hear it with renewed meaning.

Over the past six weeks, my wife and I have reconnected with a number of old friends, and I am so happy that we did.  While most of my friends have some surface differences that pertain to where they live or what they do for a career (or not), all of them are going through similar live experiences that characterize middle age (e.g., aging parents, children who are largely “independent”, minor health issues, career uncertainty, etc.).

While these re-connections could have been times where we sat and groused about these experiences, most of the time we shared our stories to convince ourselves that we weren’t the only ones going through this period of transition and to seek support from others.  It’s also interesting that even with friends who we hadn’t both seen in more that 20 years we picked up like we had seen them in the past week.  While some of this could be attributed to being on our best behavior (especially as house guests), I think it really is a tribute to both us and our friends that we do indeed have that unbreakable human connection that makes us reengage so quickly with people that we share an important history.

While we have had less than successful visits with old friends in the past, this trip made us both so happy that we chose to spend part of our summer vacation visiting this group of really important people.  The older I get the more I appreciate how old friends are like gold.  May they continue to be such a “valuable” part of our lives.

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My Friend Ian

After a couple of months away from blogging due to the press of other business (like the 100 students and four college courses that I taught and which will be the subject of another blog post soon), I decided that today would be the day to dive back in.  Why today?  Well, today was the funeral of my friend, Ian Arcus (full obituary — http://bit.ly/ZMmF5U).

Ian was lawyer in Albany who was the reason that my family came here.  Let me explain how.

When I was growing up in Rochester, NY, my mother went back to graduate school to get a PhD in political science at the University of Rochester (my dad had a law practice in Rochester, so that was where my mother need to go to graduate school, even though it was a top program in its own right).  In any event, Ian was an undergraduate at the U of R, and he had my mother as a professor (when she was finishing up her graduate degree).  To make a long story short, my mother took a liking to Ian and invited him to come to our house for dinner.  We had decided that we would have fondue for dinner and, as my folks had instructed me (I was 12 at the time) I was to offer the guest the option of starting first.  Ian, who had grown up in modest circumstances in Hudson, NY, had never had fondue in his life and when presented with an array of raw meat and vegetables and a pot of hot oil, was totally flustered by my offer to start first.  We all got a good laugh out of this (especially when my mother said that, “Ian, you haven’t done this before, have you?”), and Ian and I told the story many times over the years to our friends.

However, this doesn’t explain the Albany connection.  After graduating from the U of R, Ian went to Albany Law School and went into private practice.  Part of his practice was to serve as legislative counsel to former Senator Jack Perry from the Rochester area.  When my mother was coordinating the Albany semester program for SUNY Brockport (where she was on the faculty for 27 years in the political science department), she bumped into her former student (and fondue partner!) Ian and rekindled the friendship.  In the late 1980s when my wife and I decided that we wanted to move back to Upstate New York from Washington DC to be closer to friends and family, my mother shared this news with Ian and his lovely wife Lorraine (who coincidentally taught me at my synagogue while she was a student at the U of R before transferring to the University at Albany (SUNY) to be nearer to Ian), who invited us to stay with them in Albany while we job hunted and checked the place out.  Not only did they make us feel really welcome, Ian helped my wife find a job and made several other wonderful suggestions that made us decide that Albany was the place.  After we moved here in 1990, we saw the Arcuses from time to time but traveled in somewhat different circles (they were about 10 years older than we were) for a time.

However, in the last five years, Ian and I reconnected through our love of tennis.  We both were part of the “Morning Glories” tennis group organized by our mutual friend Ava.  The group plays tennis from 7-8 am six mornings a week and you sign up for which days you want to play, and Ava magically coordinates it.  We played indoors in the winter and outdoors in the summer, and then went on with the rest of our days.  I loved playing with Ian, not so much for the tennis (that was fun too) but for the time afterwards when we chatted in the locker room about various and sundry things, ranging from Ian’s work as a law guardian to his service on the board and as chair of the Jewish Family Service to our children and their adventures near and far.  Ian would also talk to me about the books he was reading or listening to on CD as well as other issues of the day.  A couple of years ago we expanded our tennis group to be part of Ian’s Sunday men’s doubles game, which he and his friends had had for many years, and I got to know all of them as well, adding even more richness to my life in the Capital Region.

At his funeral today, the rabbi talked about how Ian was someone who both had a quest for knowledge but also a sense of humor about the world and his place in it.  His Hebrew name was Yitzchak Ezra, which means one who laughs and also one who helps.  I will miss my friend Ian’s sense of humor but also his willingness to help others.

May his memory be for a blessing.

The Ides of March and Other Thoughts on Time

How the heck did it get to be mid-March already?  Just seemed like we turned the page on the new year and then we “sprung ahead” and now it’s mid-March and St. Patrick’s Day and Passover and Easter and Spring Break.  Yikes!

Though it is a bit of a cliche to talk about the march of time (or this month, the Time of March!), the older I get the more I do get the sense of how fleeting are our days.  Each season and each year seem to move quickly past and then it’s onto the next one with barely time to reflect on what’s go right and what’s gone wrong.

While I try and use the Jewish Sabbath each week to step off the march of time and reflect a little about the past week and think about the week to come, it’s hard to totally disengage from the world of working and planning (even if I turn off the computer and television for the day).  Yet, I think without this “day off” or “day on”, I would probably totally lose it and not be able to have any sense of perspective on where I’ve gone or where I am going.

Though many of the college students that I teach or even my own young adult children have trouble finding time to step off the march of time for even a little while, especially in the ever-connected world that we are in, I think that they (and we) need to so.  For as each of us has this great “fear of missing out” (FOMO, as my younger daughter would call it), by not stepping back and disconnecting for a bit, whether it’s using the Sabbath or any other day or time, we actually miss out on lots of things.  We become so fascinated with the trees or the bark on the trees that we have not real idea that we are looking at a beautiful forest.  Our engagement with others is all about how they fit into our plans, and not about how they fit into our lives.

I hope that as we approach the holy week for Jews and Christians, where redemption is a central concept for both religions, that we can take a step back and reflect on how we are living our lives and perhaps think about how time doesn’t control who we are or what we do, but is merely a tool for accounting that path.

Let this be a time of renewal and rebirth for all of us, not just the forced march of time.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover and Easter!

New York Sports Fan

English: Cap logo of the New York Yankees

English: Cap logo of the New York Yankees (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For as long as I can remember I have been a big sports fan.  I think I inherited this love of sports from my dad, who took me to games when I was little and seemed really into it.  He wasn’t much of an athlete himself (except for golf in latter years, which I think was more of social thing than anything else), but boy was he a big fan.  We lived in Rochester, New York, which really didn’t have any major professional sports teams, unless you count pro soccer or lacrosse, so he was an especially big fan of the New York professional sports teams, namely the Yankees, Knicks, Rangers and Giants.  Even when I was became an adult and left home and raised a family of my own, I would come home and sit in front of the television and watch games with my father.

When he was in his mid-60s and needed a quadruple bypass operation, and my sister and I both came home to be with him and my mother.  I remember sitting in the tv room with him watching some sporting event and trying to engage him in a conversation about the operation and his hopes/fears about it.  Instead, we watched the game, and he said that mom knew where all the legal documents were in case anything happened to him during the operation, but we didn’t talk much more about the operation or anything else for that matter, just two guys watching a game together.  Ironically, when he died a few years latter of complications from a lung infection, his last night at home was during the 2000 Subway Series, and we had a nice chat about our beloved Yankees over the phone.  Little did either of know that it was to be the last time we would talk about our love of sports.

This year doesn’t look to be a good one for New York sports.  The Giants faded during the end of the regular season and missed the playoffs and look to rebuild next year.  The Yankees, even with a healthy Derek Jeter, seem old and outgunned by the other teams in the AL East.  The Knicks, who started strong, are also old and one-dimensional with Carmelo Anthony taking the bulk of the load.  The Rangers were hurt by the strike and don’t seem to be jelling very well, especially on the power play.

Nevertheless, even in the bad years for New York sports (and there were lots of them), I still remember watching the games with my dad and enjoying the time together, even as we watched mostly in silence, sharing a silent bond.  I miss those days.

He’s Back…..

After a hiatus of about six weeks, I decided that I needed to get back on the saddle and do a little blogging, so here goes.  Here’s what’s on my mind these days:

(1) Spain — had a wonderful two week trip to Spain with my wife and daughters at the end of December and beginning of January to visit our former AFS exchange student and her family outside of Madrid (where we were treated so wonderfully) and see the sights.  Highlights were as follows:

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  • Toledo — Another example of mostly well-preserved 1000 year old buildings and the confluence of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.  Loved walking around the cobble-stoned streets and absorbing the sights and smells.

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  • Seville — Despite a stomach bug that prevented me from eating 12 grapes at midnight (the Spanish custom for good luck in the New Year), the other large city in SW Spain was quite a contrast to Grenada with its more modern feel and wide flat boulevards.  The holidays lights and laser light show in front of the City Hall were spectacular, as were the royal palace (the Alcazar) and the art museum.  My wife and daughters loved walking all around the city, especially in the early evening as is the Spanish custom.

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  • Passat TDI — We rented a six-speed Passat turbo-diesel and had a ball with it!  It gets about 50 mpg and it really books.  Despite a dispute with the rental car company about a scratched bumper that I now dealing with, it was a great experience to drive a fun economical car like this.

(2) Teaching — After a month away from teaching I am now fully back in the classroom teaching four classes.  While I love teaching, I think that four classes, especially two new ones (Law and Econ and Bureaucratic Politics) may be a bit much.  Will keep you posted if I have time to do so!!

(3) Superbowl XLVII – Although my beloved Giants were not part of the post-season this year, I still managed to have fun watching the Ravens and the 49ers play in the Superbowl, especially since the game seemed to actually be quite compelling after the blackout.  I think that Beyonce should bring her own power source next time…

(4) Public Radio Rant — My local station is once again fundraising and now it seems like they spend a month doing “pre-fundraising” and a month doing “post-fundraising” so that most of the year is spent “schnoring” for money.  It’s really annoying and I don’t like it.  So there.

(5) New Blogger — My good friend Dan Ornstein is blogging regularly for a new on-line Israeli newspaper (The Times of Israel) and is worth a read at – http://bit.ly/WzdS1R.