Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Blessing of an Arthritic Hip

Much like Ben Stiller's Josh in the movie While We're Young, I greeted the news that I had the beginnings of arthritis with disbelief verging on denial.

I was in the office of Dr. Liu, my acupuncturist, wearing running shorts, a towel covering my chest and belly. He bent my right leg this way and that.

"OWWWW!" I shouted. "Why does that hurt so much?!!!!"

"You misled me," scolded Dr. Liu who had told me just last week that I had bursitis. After four treatments failed to heal the inflamed hip, he investigated further, pelting me with questions about the specific nature and location of the pain and expertly prodding me in my hip, my thigh, my lower back as I yelped in affirmation of painful spots he hit.

"Arthritis!" he pronounced as I immediately envisioned myself in a motorized wheelchair, wizened, determined, steely-haired, careening down Broadway, zipping in and out of traffic.

Me? The party animal? The hiker? The dancer? The singer after hours? The gym rat? The traveler? The drinker of tequila?

But the diagnosis of arthritis -- arthritis arthritis! -- did make sense. For the past month, my right hip hurt as I ran up stairs and now, late in the day, the pain had started to radiate down my thigh to my knee.

I searched frantically for reasons to blame myself for this affliction. If I had caused it, perhaps I could remove it!

"Should I change my diet?? I semi-wailed as Dr. Liu progressed to inserting needles into the soft skin just to the side of my hip bone. A vibrating electrical current went through my leg and something else deep and horrible.

"Yow!!!" I howled.

Though I have been know to vocalize at Dr. Liu's office -- where regularly moans emanate from behind closed doors -- I had never made a sound like this, which was akin to a female Moose in labor.

He instantly looked concerned and patted my shoulder, withdrawing the needle.

"Don't worry," he said kindly. "We will fix."


What the...!!!!!!!

"Seriously...what should I do differently?" I asked Dr. Liu. I had a jumpstart on the nutritional no-no's of arthritis, as I obsessively read health manuals. "Can I still exercise? Should I cut out the inflammation-causing foods-- dairy, nightshades, wheat, meat, sugar..." I paused and gulped. "Alcohol?"

"Alcohol," he said, gravely. "It causes necrosis."

Though I wasn't sure what necrosis was, exactly, it scared me. It started with "nec," which I'm pretty sure has to do with death. Could there be something dead or dying inside my hip joint? And could I have caused it with my late-in-life love of...well, getting drunk?

As I limped out of Dr. Liu's office, I was fueled by a coked-up optimism: I would grab the arthritis bull by the horns, continue acupuncture, eliminate inflammation-causing foods, take supplements and vitamins, seek physical therapy, read everything I could find and modify my exercise, which he told me I could still do, just not at crazy intensity.

I had been using the elliptical at a rather challenging setting lately. Could that have caused this? I fretted.

Heading to a Vitamin Shoppe to stock up on anti-inflammation goods in their Joints aisle, I found the wind knocked out of my sails by a singular thought. I ate fairly well and was active. My weight was good. I was mostly gluten-free.

But I would be kidding myself if I denied that in the past few years -- and especially recently -- drinking had become a fun, new habit. What started as once every month became weekly and then several times a week.

Yes, I was a cheap drunk, getting wasted on two glasses of wine or two shots of tequila. I would note everyone else guzzling so much more than me but Dr. Liu sounded unambiguous.

No alcohol.

Digesting the news of my diagnosis of arthritis, I wondered: could I have brought harm to my body through this indulgence?

And what would it be like to no longer have my reliable party friends -- Pinot Grigio and silver tequila -- in my life?  What will I discover without the hazy embrace of that altered consciousness that I so crave at the end of a long day, the recklessness that it invites, the conversations that it enables, the inconvenient, uncomfortable truths that it blurs until the next day?

Monday, April 20, 2015

Emergence or the Essence of Spring

After two days of dazzling sunshine -- long overdue -- the rain arrived, heralded by a nippy wind that dismayed us as we rushed from our friends' house last night on West 106th Street to our car, parked on Amsterdam Avenue in front of a karaoke bar where a twenty-something guy was drunkenly belting out a Backstreet Boys hit from 15 years ago.

It was the tail end of a complex Sunday constructed with the colliding stuff of life: a funeral on the West Side, a birthday party on the banks of the Hudson, a visit to an old beloved friend in a northern New York suburb, a lecture on the East Side, numerous phone conversations with family and friends and finally, the ritual of watching MadMen with dear friends, which we have been doing for the past three years.

After a winter of unprecedented harshness, New Yorkers were treated to a Saturday of sterling perfection: clear skies, temperatures near 80, abundant light, the kindness of strangers liberated from the prison of extreme weather. Jolted out of bed by an optimism and lightness of spirit I hadn't felt since my  trip (#4 this winter) to Florida last month, I made the most of the gift of sudden spring, walking the dogs at leisure, strolling to my gym in Harlem (instead of bolting there, hands dug deep into the pockets of my North Face parka, nose numb, eyes tearing), eschewing shul for the much-needed communion with sunshine in the form of an impromptu hangout on the lawn of the Columbia campus with book, water and a beach towel.

Following numerous false starts and broken promises, spring officially arrived in winter-scarred Manhattan. Returning from his shul, HOBB found me on the campus (I left a minimalistic message -- "outside" -- made of Scrabble tiles on the dining room table, just next to the challah), we ate a light lunch, played a round of Scrabble and then propelled ourselves outdoors, virtually sprinting to Riverside Park to join the jillions of joyous humans, dogs and others creatures who were walking, running, climbing, cavorting, ambling, rambling, scrambling, shedding themselves of the too-tight skin of this recently departed season.

In midday, Riverside Park resembled nothing more than a grand, public rehabilitation facility.

Along the river, we walked down to the 79th Street Boat Basin and back uptown, bumping into innumerable friends, joining the crowded, grungy party that is the Boat Basin Cafe, witnessing a bike accident, dodging speeding cyclists to avoid getting hit ourselves, holding hands, allowing conversation to flow freely, punctuated by periods of placid silence.

Recalling Saturday -- the most perfect urban Shabbat in recent memory -- I find the strength to face the backsliding temperatures of today and revive my habit of documenting my life in this public forum.

Why have I not written this winter in this, my online home, repository of my musings, struggles, activities, inspirations? (Full disclosure: I have written elsewhere and for others but not here. Just two weeks ago, I published a rather naked essay on the Huffington Post. And I have pounded the keyboard of my laptop in pain, despair, fury, frustration and the quest for transcendence since my last meandering, meditative post, two seasons ago, choosing to keep my thoughts sealed and concealed in my personal files. Some things are too private or perhaps it is simply too soon to examine them publicly.)

When I stopped at the home of my former neighbor in New Rochelle yesterday -- a soul sister of sorts -- she asked me this very question: why my blog went into blackout mode.

The winter, I answered, meaning more than the weather.

Which she instantly understood.

Earlier that day, at the birthday party I attended at Wave Hill, I met a musician and psychologist with whom I spoke for close to two hours. Given to spontaneous connections with strangers, the fact of our impromptu conversation was not unusual but the substance of it was so significant and relevant to me that I had to wonder about angels placing us at the same time and place in order to connect.

Among the many things we spoke about was creativity and mood. A third person joined the conversation, also an artist. We discussed the importance of the ebb and flow of our feelings, the deep dive into difficult introspection that leads to breakthrough and outpouring.

Heads bent inward, we excitedly shared our accounts of the ways in which we managed our moods, our conviction that feeling all ends of the emotional spectrum was essential to the integrity of our artistry and the emergence of our authentic selves.

Twenty four hours later, I feel myself transported to a faraway galaxy with the warmth of the sun on my bare legs a distant memory. "Taking the dogs out today was an act of animal abuse," reported HOBB, returning with two miserably soaked pooches just a short while ago, his canvas Crocs sloshy.

I dried and fed the dogs. Outside our window overlooking Amsterdam Avenue, I saw cars and trucks driving through a downpour, tires turning on wet pavement. Dreamily, I drifted back to my bedroom. The sound and scene chilled me, made me burrow into my blankets.

But my allotted time for self-expression has come to an end and the demands of the workday begin.

It is time to get out of bed, where I have cozily arranged myself -- laptop on pillow, a mug of Zabar's coffee on my night table -- in response to the weather that reminds me of the recently-departed winter.

Today forces a close and candid examination of what transpired over the past few months.

It was an ordeal but there was insight, beauty, new bonds, self-knowledge and discovery.

It was an assault but the absence of pain is a form of pleasure.

There was adventure because I crave and create it; there was escape and travel and sunshine. I cannot misrepresent reality. While new acts of insane and cruel religious extremism were broadcast into our lives from faraway places -- destabilizing us as human beings, recalling the potential for destruction, terrifying us -- I had the luxury to slip into sadness, to sit in dissatisfaction, to taste disappointment, to dream.

Perhaps because I so love the essence of paradox, I prefer to view the Winter of 2015 through that particular prism.

Gazing reluctantly backwards, I feel like a survivor, brushing myself off, stepping gingerly but with spirit and great dignity over the Finish Line, moving towards the rising sun, palms raised, heart open, face tilted upwards.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Don't Cry for Me, Mandy Patinkin

On the final Friday afternoon in November, Concord's Monument Square was congenially crowded with ruddy-cheeked, good-natured pedestrians arrayed in colorful outerwear, toting oversized holiday shopping bags, gracefully skirting the coconutty mounds of unsullied snow banking the sidewalks of the street leading up to the Colonial Inn, our destination, established in 1713.

We had arrived in the heart of this historic Massachusetts town with only a couple of hours until Shabbat, eager to track down food and local cultural offerings...not necessarily in that order. Stumbling into the hotels's reception area with my too-numerous bags and Manhattan black-on-black attire, I set about the task of finding out what was showing, playing or otherwise open that we would need to purchase tickets for before the 4:12 sundown.

One of the hallmarks of people like me who straddle the worlds of traditional Jewish observance and the cultural cornucopia of secular society is an insistence upon celebrating Shabbat while also availing ourselves of shows, concerts and other local offerings. In other words, we want to be part of the wonderful world at large even as we honor the restrictions that are part of a religious life.

What this typically means is a mad dash to purchase tickets before the advent of the Day of Rest and being able to walk to the venue and back to one's hotel from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. It means figuring out what to do for Friday night dinner; it means museum admissions secured ahead of time so that a Saturday visit can take place. It also often means a tote bag or knapsack filled with snacks so the day of adventure can unfold without compromising any of the Sabbath day restrictions on making purchases.

Depending on one's denomination, all kinds of creative solutions may be found and the season greatly impacts this experience as the long days of summer provide the opportunity for Friday evening travel before it gets dark and the short days of winter mean that secular Saturday night endeavors can begin as early as 5 p.m.

Whether one carries a credit card that is used only until sunset on Friday or just after sunset on Saturday has to do with the willingness to interpret the law in a flexible way. Still, the pursuit of this ideal binds all Jews who seek that precarious balance between the spiritual and the secular.

Grabbing a local fall going-out guide from the rack of tourist brochures in the lobby of the Colonial Inn this past Friday, I impatiently perused a plethora of uninteresting holiday offerings until the very item I had been seeking came sharply into focus.

"There's an 8 p.m. performance of Evita at The Umbrella tonight," I happily informed HOBB, breathing a sigh of relief. The Umbrella is a new arts collective and performance space that occupied a local elementary school, just a five minute walk from the Colonial Inn. After settling into our room, we could buy our tickets online, light Shabbat candles in the bathroom, read, go down for dinner in one of the hotel's restaurants and leisurely make our way to The Umbrella...a most perfect way to start our weekend vacation.

We had driven to Concord as a spontaneous, last-minute weekend vacation after a fall of unusual work-related stress.  In the days following Middle Babe's wedding at Greentree Country Club in New Rochelle on August 28th, I longed for a period of calm that never quite arrived; in fact, it seemed that the end of the wedding ushered in a season of new challenges, extending an unfortunate trend of dealing with difficult and unreasonable personalities.

After a charming overnight stay in Philadelphia the week before, we spontaneously opted for another great American city for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. With memories of many marvelous restorative winter vacations in the area, of hikes around Walden Pond and visits to the local cemetery where many of the great transcendentalists are buried, I instantly went online and booked the last available room at the Colonial Inn.

Our room was as quirky, old-fashioned, overheated and quaint as I had hoped...complete with beamed ceilings and slanted floors with broad wooden planks. We happily unpacked, set our Scrabble set on the bed as we readied to go downstairs for dinner, uncorked the excellent Borgo Reale Pinot Grigio we had brought from Manhattan and began our long awaited Day of Rest.

After a short traipse through the magical snowy streets of Concord a couple of hours later, mellowed by the wine and the Louisa May Alcott landscape, I sat in the auditorium of the new community arts center, utterly enchanted by the surprisingly professional and inventive production of the show I had last seen 35 years earlier when it opened on Broadway, starring Patti Lupone.

There are the shows we are conscious of loving, the shows whose scores we sing in our heads, the shows whose themes seem intertwined with our lives. West Side Story; Phantom of the Opera; Little Shop of Horrors; The Lion King; The Rocky Horror Show: Hair: Jesus Christ Superstar; The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof top my personal list.

Over the course of my life as a parent, part of the joy of loving -- and sharing my love of -- certain musicals has been my penchant for speaking in lyrics or dialogue to my kids and certain trusted friends. The snide, "What do you mean by that?" from "Pontius Pilate's Song"in Jesus Christ Superstar has been one of my popular refrains. "She asks me why I'm such a hairy guy," from Hair has peppered conversations about the need for waxing. "Very smart Maria, very smart!" snarled by Anita in West Side Story has been employed as a way of defusing criticism.

Sitting in The Umbrella abuzz with excitement -- singing every lyric along with the actors in my head -- I recalled how much I had loved Evita and wondered why it slipped from my consciousness, especially since the sarcastic "Oh but it's sad when a love affair dies," has escaped my lips a few times and "I kept my promise. Don't keep your distance," has also been known to be on my spoken lyrics list.

I remembered how I had excitedly bought the cast recording on cassette after the show and how I sang along with it together with my sister, a musical actress. I recalled how insulted and stung I was when a critic from The New Yorker (or maybe it was the super-nasty John Simon of New York Magazine?) made fun of the lyrics, which I thought were great.

I also remembered that I had seen Evita just before I left for Hebrew University for my junior year semester abroad; my parents presented tickets to the show to me as a gift before I left home. For a city college kid, leaving the country for a year abroad was a big deal, especially for my parents who had insisted we live at home and commute to school. For the oldest daughter of a rabbi who changed careers just two years earlier -- becoming a clinical psychologist, borrowing money to buy a house for the first time, working around around the clock to earn enough to pay his friends back and keep his three children in school -- it was a big expenditure as well.

All this I thought of on Friday night in Concord, Massachusetts, in the auditorium of The Umbrella, 35 years after the fact. "This is very good," HOBB whispered to me as each actor debuted, their sweet and strong voices carrying the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. I nodded vigorously, staring at the stage in a state of rapture.

Somewhere in the middle of the show-stopping number "A New Argentina," I nearly cried out with an emotion that blended revelation, joy and shock as I realized that the young bearded actor I had seen 35 years ago playing the narrator Che Guevara revolutionary on the Broadway stage was none other than he who played the avuncular, grey-haired Saul Berenson of "Homeland," a show HOBB and I follow with a passion that borders on religious devotion.

"Ari!" I whispered in a hoarse voice. "I just remembered that I saw Mandy Patinkin for the first time in Evita! How crazy is that?"

"What?" he whispered back, unable to hear me above the swelling, soaring music.

"I'll tell you later!!!" I whispered, sitting alone with my mind-bending realization, wrapping myself in that most universal human experience -- the stunning experience of past and present blending, the sensation of standing still while being hurtled backward through the tunnel of time.

As often happens when I return to a cultural touchpoint of the seventies -- the movies Carrie, Annie Hall and Taxi Driver, the music of David Bowie and Donna Summer, Laserium, shag hairdos -- I recall  the pre-cyber era. I remember a world before we were points along a worldwide GPS grid, a focused world before the habit of distraction, a wide-open world before it was possible to find just about anything within seconds by staring at a screen, a sincere world where "virtual" and "text" had far different meanings, a world strictly of the here and now.

I remembered the seventies buzz about Mandy Patinkin, his super-Jewy bonafides -- the Yiddish, Hebrew and cantorial songs he had performed, the Old Testament appearance, the name -- and the communal pride that "one of us" had again made it to Hollywood, the Broadway stage and great stardom. 

In truth, I didn't think about him much over these intervening decades until I became obsessed with Homeland.  I knew he had other starring roles but he was off my personal radar screen until Homeland, playing the former head of the CIA and looking quite a lot like our friend, the best-selling author Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, at least according to Middle Babe, who introduced us to the show

But being reminded of the 1979 production of Evita and of the spirited and youthful version of the actor now beloved to me as Homeland's wise yet weary Saul Berenson, I fell down a temporal rabbit hole as the 1979 Patinkin met up with the 2014 least in my mind.

On that Friday night in Concord, Massachusetts, watching a local performance of Evita with tickets bought before sundown, I wondered about the Jewish life of the man who brought Che Guevara to life on the Broadway stage. I wondered about his Shabbat observance. I wondered about the journey he had taken as an artist and a Jew. I wondered about his personal life, his web of connections. I wondered what he thought of his accomplishments. I wondered what he was really like.

But mostly I wondered: how could it be that -- in the very same number of years that Mandy Patinkin went from newcomer to legend -- I feel exactly as I did at the age of 19, unformed, unaccomplished, focused, wide-open, sincere, eager to leave home for the first time and begin my own true journey?

Monday, September 29, 2014

In the Velvet Darkness of the Blackest Night* or The View from 2:45 a.m.

The Urban Bungalow is quiet at this hour, Alfie and Nala the Pomeranians respectfully camped out next to me on the mattress in Little Babe's room that is, in fact, his bed, arranged teenage-style.

Minutes earlier, my Israeli nephew quietly came through the front door, returning back home after a farewell night with friends before he leaves for his post-army American road trip.

Midday, the two of us spent more than three hours at the Medieval Festival at Fort Tryon Park in Upper Manhattan. Wandering amid throngs of people, we were dazed and dazzled by the sunshine, the spectacle, the booths, the music, the dance, the cups of mead, the oversized turkey drumsticks, dripping with grease, the duels, the human chess game played on a field beneath the Cloisters, the meditative glass blower, the purveyor of ancient dentistry and other forms of merry entertainment.

Endlessly fascinating was the profusion of era-fetishists --  the civilians who came attired in their version of the Dark Ages Best Dressed List -- looking like goths, members of a punk band or residents of Williamsburg, Berlin or Middle Earth. In velvet, leather, chain-mail, animal skins, corsets, spilling cleavage, heavy boots, helmets, tattoos, bared midriffs, wreaths, veils, capes, caps and other archaic finery, they touched me with their wish to wear the wardrobe of another time and place. I wondered what they were drawn to or what they sought to escape. They were multi-ethnic pre-modernist postmodern performance artists, wandering the paved pathways of Upper Manhattan, transforming the landscape with their costumes and their poignant quest, which seemed prayerful, reverential, deeply and sincerely religious.

At the festival, I longed for the presence of my three grown children, recollected our long-ago visits to the legendary New York State Renaissance Faire, held in Sterling Forest in Tuxedo, New York.  I recalled the swords and shields we had bought our sons -- eleven years apart; the jousting matches we had cheered on; the wreaths and fairy wings our daughter wore. I remembered awkwardly shooting arrows at the archery range and wandering worriedly through the labyrinth and falling off a shaky contraption called Jacob's Ladder. How my kids would have loved the quirky fun of the Fort Tryon festival; how its very proximity to our Manhattan home would have delighted them, even as adults. Especially as adults.

Several hours later, sunburnt and slightly dehydrated, heading for the A train with possibly three thousand strangers, I heard about the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group through which enthusiasts of pre-17th Century Europe connect and find out about opportunities to dress up and celebrate their favorite historical epoch. For perhaps the billionth time, I praised the Internet for the mitzvah of bringing people together.

Regarding anachronisms, the summer-like weather of the past few days was both a worrisome sign and a delight. Having heard reports that the upcoming winter is shaping to be even worse than last year's relentless reign, I welcomed the heat that insisted upon loitering into late September and yet, with the urgent message of the People's Climate March still ringing in my ears, I knew that this gift comes with a steep price tag.

But it is not my aim to write about the weather at this hour, nor even the marvelous fair overlooking the Hudson River.

Instead, it is my intention to document this moment of wakefulness, this sliver of soul disturbance following a flawless fall day. It is my duty to examine the act of staring into the velvet darkness of a liminal moment -- poised between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, between midnight and morning, unmoored, one week after Big Babe, my oldest son, returned to Berlin after a month's stay, five weeks after the return of Little Babe, my youngest son, to his Pennsylvania college, one month after the wedding of my daughter, Middle Babe and three weeks after HOBB and I marked our 31st wedding anniversary.

As someone forever in search of connection, I experience transitions and separations as invariably tinged with pain. The many morphings of a family take emotional adjustment. Milestones occasion great introspection and evaluation. Marriages go through grand upheavals when children are grown and the respective dreams of the liberated spouses collide like comets.

Though I ponder these matters during daylight hours, the deepest processing happens in the middle of the night.

As someone who loves deeply and possessively, as I believe one is entitled to, I ponder that which I have and seek. I take my cue from God, depicted in Scripture as a jealous God, forever outraged that His chosen people are consorting with other gods. I love that unabashed pronouncement about God; it is so honest. I, too, believe in relationships where such jealous claims can be made, where one is empowered to stake one's claim against other gods, human and otherwise.

I deeply believe that some things are so sacred and basic that they are worth fighting for... or grieving over, if lost. I believe in being called to account for my own inability to satisfy the jealous God emotional needs of those nearest and dearest to me.

Sacred, too, within this dark room are one's dashed dreams. The pain, outrage and sorrow experienced at the moment of this honest encounter can be either cataclysmic or a catalyst for change.

This clarity comes in the space between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It is a clarity that induces a form of madness, or perhaps is borne of madness. The quest for Teshuva is not just about atonement for our sins but for the restoration of all that has been shattered and lost.

In the darkened room where I am alone with God and my private self, I can name feelings without blame or reproach. I can say Ashamnu, Bagadnu, beating my breast...or not. Alone, apart from the congregation, I can confront my sins and failures as well.

Perhaps I can even befriend them.

I can confess my hurt and my shortcomings and feel comforted by the maternal night.

Adopted nearly 54 years ago, I can examine the wounds that will likely always be mine.

And because it is night, I can dream of the time when they will be healed.

In this quiet room, dreams start to take shape. At this moment, I strive for strength, steadfastness and fortitude.

Deprived of external images, introspection yields understanding. I return to the task of Teshuva. I pray for honesty. I see my own misdeeds. I see pathways to restoration. I struggle, like Jacob, with dark angels. I twist and turn like I did on the aptly-named ladder at the Renaissance Fair so long ago. I fall, I land in dirt, I get up, I attempt to steady myself on the shaky rungs. I take aim at the archery range, missing the target repeatedly, trying again, gaining a bulls-eye eventually. I wander in the labyrinth, lost, found, running on instinct, fear and exhilaration.

In this space, I can focus on faith, something I am deficient in, like Vitamin D. I can believe that the new day will bring insight. I can believe I will be given a gift or a key or that I will have a personal encounter that will change my life.

And then, I will feel whole. Perhaps.

Mostly, at this hour, I can write freely, thereby dignifying the fact of my solitude, a necessary pre-condition for insight.

And like the Medieval enthusiasts who find one another through a website, I can reach out through this 21st Century portal and connect with all those who sit in the darkness of liminal moments, longing for connection, salvation, revelation, redemption.

*Lyrics unabashedly stolen from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. "There's a Light."