Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Throw In A Load

Shabbat #4: Back at the humble abode.

Guests: Jeff, Stephanie and their son E. Jeff and Stephanie are a "bit" older than us. Over the last two decades we have often looked to them for advice on navigating the marital waters. Jeff made me my first gimlet and Stephanie bakes a mean brownie.

Menu: Matzo Ball Soup, The Very Best Brisket and Vegetables, Toby's Whole Wheat Challah, Raspberry Crisp

What I Learned:

One of the best things about having kids is sharing them. E. is 14 years old and my kids are 2 and 5. Whenever we are all together Jeff and Stephanie get to relive the past and Steve and I get a glimpse into the future. Steve talks football with E. Jeff tosses a ball with Ben. Stephanie reads to Sarah. And I try to convince E. that answering an endless stream of questions from a 5 year old while dressing a 2 year old in a Snow White costume complete with tiara and slippers really is more fun than hanging out with friends. E is a trooper.

He's also pretty special to us.

Aside from defending our "peace disturbing" German Shepard in municipal court, Steve's first act as a licensed attorney was helping Jeff and Stephanie adopt E. (E. knows so I am not letting the cat out of the bag here.) I remember when Jeff asked Steve for help. Without a bit of hesitation Steve obliged. Way back then when Steve agreed he was not a father. Far from it. As a result, he had no way of knowing how significant it would end up being for Steve to help Jeff adopt his only child - a healthy, strapping son no less. Not just for Jeff and Stephanie who became parents, but also for Steve who likely counts that deed as the single best use of his law license. Maybe even the single greatest deed for a friend period. I know I do.

Fourteen years ago I was a little thrown by Steve's hasty offer to help. What do you know about an adoption? Are you sure you can do this? What if you screw it up? Steve didn't think much about those things. He was too focused on helping a friend. As I think back on that moment 14 years ago, I am now not the least bit surprised.

For better or worse, Steve is the kind of guy who can't say no. Especially to a friend. He is loyal. Sometimes to a fault. For the most part, this works out pretty well for Steve and his friends. But every once in a while he is blinded by this loyalty. Whether it is his failure to have the foresight to appreciate the consequences of his decisions or his lack of fortitude to disappoint a friend, sometimes the results are grim. Most recently they were downright catastrophic.

A few winters ago I was getting dressed in the gym locker room. It was one of those bitter January days. I had no socks and cursed myself (out loud of course) for forgetting.

"Take these."

Dangling from the hand of a girl I'd never seen was a new pair of socks. Complete with the little plastic hook that you tell yourself you should cut off with scissors but bite off every time instead.

"Really?" Are you sure?"

"No problem. It all comes out in the wash anyway."

Pulling on the socks, I thought about that phrase: It all comes out in the wash anyway. What did she mean? (I'm an attorney so I can be pretty literal.) Was she expecting me to return them washed? Did her washer worked differently than mine, producing socks on the spin cycle rather than sucking them into the washer abyss? This sock-a-pade stuck with me for years.

Turns out she knew something I didn't fully appreciate back then.

We all make bad decisions. And, regardless of our intentions, sometimes we end up hurting other people. Fortunately, for most of us the consequences aren't played out on the 5 o'clock news.

I think the message from the sock-a-pade was this: if we concentrate on doing more good than harm, we'll come out even (or better) in the end. Give a pair of socks here, get a pair later.

Steve's still got a lot of wash to do. But don't we all. Fortunately (especially for my husband's sake) I'm of the mindset that good deeds are bankable. When I look at Jeff, Stephanie and E. together, I am proud of the role Steve played - however small. In a year filled with struggle and doubt, reflections on the good in my life provides some solace. E. is the personification of that good. At least to me.

Jeff and Stephanie - thanks for sharing.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Home Is Where the Heart Is

Shabbat #3: Boulder, Colorado. Not too shabby.

Guests: Us. And the wedding party and out of town guests to Elissa and Jason. Elissa is the daughter of one of my closest friends, Nancy. Nancy is the type of friend that I could call at 3am and know that she would come. No matter what. So of course we attended the wedding. And as luck would have it, it was a Jewish wedding complete with shabbat blessings.

Menu: Salmon, salad, roasted vegetables. Oh. And the largest vat of artichoke dip I have ever seen on the appetizer buffet. I literally wanted to strip off my clothes and climb in. But I refrained.

What I Learned: After a few glasses of wine, I was finding it hard not to impart some advice on the soon to be bride. Dangerous territory. Here are the 3 simple rules that I gave.

1. No Secrets.
2. Get Physical.
3. Fix It Now.

The first one is simple. Secrets rot the soul. Avoid keeping them. The second one is downright primal. We all need human touch. A lot. It's the third one that needs a bit more explanation.

We're only 3 weeks into a year of shabbats, but I have already been motivated to start fixing things around the house in preparation for company. Last week I finally replaced the lighbulbs in the china cabinet. They'd been out for a good year. It wasn't an unduly difficult task. It required a trip to Home Depot followed by a total of ten minutes awkwardly maneuvering the tiny little bulbs into their sockets. I was so pleased with myself that I left them on all night and into the next day. When I pulled up to the house I could see my twinkling handy work from the front drive. That motivated me. I bought the Magic Eraser and erased the green crayon from the foyer wall. And then I rotated the two ton coffee table (with the help of the hubby) and vacuumed underneath. None of these tasks where overly taxing (ok ... that table was pretty damn heavy), but I avoided them. Like a lot of those "boy I should really fix that" projects in my house, they initially seemed glaring but then gradually faded from view. And when they did catch my eye, I told myself that I was the only one that noticed so who cares? Turns out I did.

I've learned that the same goes for my marriage. Over the course of 13+ years, my marriage has had its fair share of burned out bulbs, crayon smears and plenty of junk shoved, dropped or otherwise lost under the two ton coffee table. Sure it bothered me. But I figured it was my marriage and if no one else noticed then who cares? Turns out I did. And so did my husband.

Fortunately, we learned to fix things. And fixing begets fixing.

Maybe a new marriage is not so different from a new home. It looks great when you move into it. But if you want to keep it that way you've got to take care of it. You've got to change the lightbulbs and wipe away the crayon smears. And every once in a while you're going to need to ask your spouse for help so you can move that two ton coffee table and vacuum underneath.

Sure, fixing these things requires time, awkward moments and some sweat and tears, but it's worth it. After all, home is where the heart is.

Monday, January 11, 2010

How Ya Doin'?

First official shabbat of 2010 was on fire ... literally.

Here's the 411:

Guests: John and Susan and their three lovely children. John and Susan were our first "friends" as a couple. Susan and I used to gripe about whether our boyfriends would ever propose. Oddly, the boys eventually wised up and proposed within days of each other. Neither knowing that the other was about to pop the question. We like to refer to John and Susan as our "smart friends" (no offense to our other friends of course). We joke that we're John and Susan's equivalent to reality television. When they need to zone out and rest their brains, they call us. Oh, and neither of them can hold their mai tai's.

Menu: Roast with Red Wine/Dijon Gravy (overcooked again), Roasted Red Potatoes with Garlic and Rosemary, Roasted Broccoli with Dried Cranberries, Parmesan and Sunflower Seeds, Toby's Whole Wheat Challah, S'mores

What I Learned: If you want to get a party started, light a fire. Fortunately this one was out back on the patio in the firepit I gave my husband (in lieu of the lump of coal he deserved - or maybe to destroy the evidence in the future). Despite the fact that it was one of the coldest nights in decades, the four kids happily cinderized marshmallow after marshmallow as we watched (wine glass in hand) from the warm family room.

But I digress. I learned that someone I care about has been suffering with a medical issue for almost a year. Albeit non-life threatening, but scary and unexpected nonetheless. She didn't tell me until now. We've been together. Talked on the phone. It never came up. Maybe I should have sensed something, but I am ashamed to say that I was so wrapped up in my own life that if the signs were there I blew right by them. If she had told me I know I couldn't have done anything - at least in terms of fixing what was wrong. But perhaps it would have made things a little bit easier in some other way. It's complicated. I know I don't tell the people that I care about in our life - not to mention the dozens of people that ask me in a day "how ya doin?" - how I'm really doing. I didn't tell Susan about my dilemma for months. Even if I had she could not have fixed it. Telling her would have made me feel better - at least at some point. The telling part would have been uncomfortable. Probably the reason I didn't do it. Would she support our decision? Refrain from passing judgment? Yes on both counts - as if I really had any doubt.

What if every time we asked someone how they were doing, we actually listened? What if every time someone asked us how we were doing, we actually responded - I mean really responded? Within reason of course. I am not suggesting that we all pour our hearts out to the grocery checker. Clearly it would require a few more minutes. But seems like it would be time well spent. A little dialogue that could potentially lift a burden, clear a conscience or share a victory.

I'm going to give it a try. So next time you ask me how I'm doin' settle in because I might just tell you. And next time I ask you, bring it. I'm listening.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Shabbat Shalom from 20,000 Feet

So we have already broken the rules.

Our first shabbat of 2010 was neither at home nor with friends. It was from a cruising altitude of 20,000 feet with a few hundred strangers abroad Southwest airlines. But trust me. There was plenty of religion and conversations with G-d going on:

"For G-d's sake Ben, stop sucking on the seatbelt. Do you wanna get H1N1?"
"Please G-d, don't let my IPhone run out. I will not survive without Hello Kitty and Bakugan."
"Where is that G-d damn drink cart?"

Yes. Fun family travel with a two-year old and a five-year old.

But back to those rules.

Before I was "officially" Jewish, a Jew told me that Judaism has a lots of rules - 613 to be exact - but that the majority of Jews never aspire or even attempt to follow them all. (Pretty sure I have already broken a few in this blog.) According to this guy (whose judgement I later questioned when he convinced me to do a 10k in Israel that required a Palestian cabbie to ferry us through West Bank checkpoints to the start), you can choose the rules that work best in your life. This resonated with me. I like rules. They help eliminate decision-making. I hate decision-making. (More on that later.) I also like rules that can be broken. Perfect. Sign me up.

So, it seems only fitting that as of January 1, 2010, I have already broken the rules.

It also gave me another week to decide what I would write about after each shabbat "experience":

1. Guests: I'll tell you a little bit about the folks that came. But not too much out of respect for their privacy. Our plan is to invite a different family every week. Frankly, after the events of 2009 that is a pretty lofty goal, but we are up for the challenge.
2. Menu: I'll tell you what we ate. Maybe I will even include recipes. Everyone knows that I am a runner. What you may not know is that I run to eat. Most runners do. We spend 90 percent of our long runs talking about food. The other 10 percent is spent talking about how many more miles we have to talk about food. I once ran with a guy who told me that he got excited at night thinking about eating a fryed egg sandwich in the morning. So I am definitely going to talk about the food.
3. Reflections: I'll tell you what I learned which is pretty much the point of this whole thing. To learn something about myself, to give my children an opportunity to learn from our friends and to maybe (hopefully) have our friends walk away with a little something more than a full stomach and a hangover.

But maybe I'll change my mind and write about something else.

Because here's the thing. After 39 years I now know that I can change my mind.

Last summer when I was in a very dark place a friend of mine met me for coffee. We talked about my situation and here's what she said:

"Rebecca, you can make a decision. Then you can change your mind."

Really? You've got to be kidding me. For 39 years I have been walking around thinking that all decisions are permanent. I have wasted countless hours weighing options, delaying and avoiding decisions. I have worn myself out in the diaper aisle. "Are Pampers really better than generics?" "Will Sarah love me less if I buy the cheapos?" "Does that make me a bad mother?" You get the picture.

When Suzy told me this a giant weight was lifted. Was it that simple? No, not exactly. But it was the most useful piece of advice I have been blessed to receive. Thanks Suzy. Today I believe in love, have faith and choose happiness. And I also buy generic diapers.

So maybe you will read about Guests, Menus and Reflections or maybe I will change my mind. You'll have to keep reading to find out.

Here's To Fewer Lifeboats

One of our resolutions for 2010 (and believe me there are MANY) is to share our Friday night shabbat dinners with our friends. Jewish, not Jewish. We don't care. All you need to do is eat, drink and be willing to share in our little social experiment we like to call "A Year (Or More) of Shabbats." This blog will chronicle our (and your) experience.

Since returning from Israel in 2006 (that is a story for another blog) we have been celebrating shabbat as a family each Friday on a fairly regular basis -- at least what I consider to be regular when you have two kids, careers and all the craziness that ensues. In our most challenging times (and believe me there have been MANY), our dinners have served as a "lifeboat" that helps ferry us out of troubled waters -- even if just for a night. In joyous times the dinners are a celebration of all that is precious in our life.

Here's to hoping that 2010 is filled with more celebrations and fewer lifeboats.

Friday, January 8, 2010


In 2006 I went to Israel. My husband was part of an American Jewish Committee trip there and he asked me to come along. My motivations for traveling with him were far from spiritual. My son was 1 ½ and I needed a break alone with my husband.

We spent 4 days in Israel. I saw the sites, ate falafel and generally continued to feel the same way that I had felt about the importance of religion in my life for the last 30+ years. I hadn’t set foot in a church by choice since the mid-70s. When I had to go I watched the clock – even during weddings. My great miracle of Christmas had more to do with vacation days and holiday parties. My religion – to the extent it existed – was a bit more personal. I prayed to myself at night. “Now I lay me down to sleep” followed by my list of people who were important to me (or had been important to me and by pure habit continued to be included in my tiny sliver of religion).

We also visited Morocco. We arrived on a Friday night. I was exhausted and nauseous from the sweaty van trip into Casablanca. We were scheduled to attend a Shabbat dinner at the home of a local Jewish family. I didn’t want to go. After some prodding from Steve, I rallied and went.

What I saw when we arrived was truly something out of a movie. Women dressed in sparkling robes, food for as far as the eye could see, the finest linens. That night, I listened to the stories of the slow death that Judaism was suffering in Morocco. Jewish graveyards being relocated to make way for Muslim monuments, synagogues closing one by one, and Jewish children leaving the country for a better life in Europe. Their Shabbat dinner seemed to not only be a way to honor their religious beliefs, but to preserve them.

That night Steve and I returned to our hotel and made a promise. If the Jews of Casablanca could go to such great lengths to preserve their religion, we could surely manage to have Shabbat dinner once a week as our little effort. Still, I was skeptical. Dinner at home every Friday night? I wasn’t even Jewish. But Steve was. I had seen the way that he had been moved during our trip. I saw a deeper side of him that I had not known before. So I committed.

We went home and had our first Shabbat dinner. I think I even made a brisket. And slowly a richer life began to unfold for us.

We hung the mezuzah we purchased while we were in Israel. I lit the candles each week and read the prayers. Ben became the official Shabbat match and candle extinguisher.

One thing led to another and I ended up converting. And we continued to have our fairly regular weekly Shabbat dinners.

Then everything changed.

In 2009 Steve pled guilty to obstruction of justice in a widely publicized federal investigation. What played out in the media was only the tip of the iceberg. Steve and I spent hours upon hours strolling our two-year old daughter trying to recount where things had gone so totally wrong. And even more hours trying to figure out where we would go next. What did we want for ourselves, for our marriage and for our children?

In September at Rosh Hashanah - the Jewish New Year - I vowed to slow down each Shabbat. To cherish the moments with my family and to appreciate that together we are greater than the sum of our parts.

On New Year’s Eve Steve and I talked again about our resolutions. And so was born “A Year or More of Shabbats.” Our effort to try to put our life back together, reconnect with our friends and family and teach our children that down is not out.

This is our journey.