Archive for the ‘AMERICAN LIFE’ Category

SLALOM WALKING

Pre-COVID-19, I took three walks a day to reach a minimum of four total miles. I still do. I’ve noticed some things.

Home-sheltered, more people walk, run and bicycle weekdays. On the first day of shelter-in-place, sidewalks and streets were relatively crowded. The second day, walkers, runners and cyclists tapered off. People are still out but not as many. Is pollen season to blame?

Maybe it’s Zoom. I never heard of Zoom before the pandemic. Now, my family Zoom-gathers Thursday nights. I Zoom Friday-night Shabbat services and Saturday-morning Torah Study. Congregation Sherith Israel has more worshippers and students online. Congregants and guests can stay home. Older folks don’t face a shlep.

After Torah Study, friends and I, who have coffee together, meet digitally. Our jibes, as always, are often juvenile. Correction. My jibes. You grow up in Queens, you retain a measure of adolescence but eventually become a mature, empathetic adult. Well, most Queensites.

As to getting out of the house, I walk in slalom mode. Simply put, I maintain at least a six-foot distance between myself and anyone else (except Carolyn) and so do a lot of zigging and zagging. Maintaining a straight line is impossible due greatly to, what we referred to in the army as that ten percent.

Some folks—the ten percent can be any age—don’t comprehend the safety of six-foot distances. Or maybe how six feet measures out. Often, they’re cell-phone distracted. Chatting or music makes them oblivious to the fact that other people live in San Francisco. Note: The City has grown to almost 900,000. Decades earlier, a stumbling economy pushed us down to near 700,000. Will we see a repeat?

Runners can be exceptionally out to lunch—even after breakfast or before dinner. I ran for decades, so I get that runners hate to break stride or veer, taking themselves out of the zone they’ve entered or fearing a sudden stop or turn will lead to injury. The latter poses no problem. City streets and trails in the Presidio National Park a block north of my house offer great sightlines. People don’t jump out from behind trees to surprise you. Not yet.

Some people—ignorant or self-consumed—exhibit a predilection for walking or running down the middle of a sidewalk or path and not budging even when they see you. Maybe they feel that a two-foot detour will lead them to drop off a thousand-foot precipice. Which might not be all that bad. They leave me two choices. Expose myself to a deep exhale or cough loaded with coronavirus-filled droplets or move over.

I move.

The Mishnah—Judaism’s ancient Oral Law—includes a section called Pirke Avot, often known as Wisdom of the Fathers. The Sages recommend building “a fence around the Torah.” To avoid violating a commandment, stay far from temptation. This can be carried to absurd lengths to avoid going down the slippery slope, but the concept also can be positive.

I say, if six feet is good, eight feet is better. Granted, that’s not always possible. What ispossible is for people to show common courtesy by keeping to the right and moving away, envisioning a world existing beyond themselves. That’s a good guideline in ordinary times. It’s a great one now.

Six feet apart beats six feet under.

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MARKING TIME

Einstein was right. Time is relative. Now, with much of the nation sheltering in place, time takes on a whole new dimension.

When I was 10, relativity seemed clear—in a childlike way. School days were long. Saturdays and Sundays short. A year? Endless. It took all of January to correctly write the new year—say 1955 instead of 1954.

My friends and I marked the seasons. Nature gave New York the classic four. We augmented them. We played each sport at its time. March also brought baseball card season along with far-off spring training. Note: In 1954, the major leagues had 16 teams playing 154 games, not 162, NFL teams played 12 games, not 16 or 17 scheduled for 2021, and NBA teams 72 games, not 82. No baseball playoffs. The World Series—day games only—concluded in the beginning of October, not at the end.

Warm weather brought another seasonal marker—water-guns. We sprayed each other with tiny plastic pistols that needed constant refilling. They looked like comics detective Dick Tracy’s or the small ray guns used by Flash Gordon and TV’s Captain Video. (My opera-loving mother Blanche was one of Captain Video’s Video Rangers.) Winter meant taking sleds out of storage. Bourton Street sloped enough so that we could go belly flopping—take a running start, toss your sled down while hanging on, flop on for the ride down to 63rd Drive. And stop before you got squished by oncoming traffic.

School and summer mark time for kids. When I was five, my family started spending summers at Kappy’s Kottages, a bungalow colony in the Catskills. In lieu of vacation, my father Morris drove up Thursday evenings and heading back to the city Monday mornings. At 12, I went to sleepaway camp in Massachusetts, then in Pennsylvania. College summers varied—camp counselor, selling souvenirs at the New York World’s Fair, office work in Manhattan for Family Weekly, a Sunday newspaper supplement.

Post-college, I enlisted in the Army. Summers were hot—one at Fort Dix, New Jersey, two at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. The next summer, Carolyn and I drove from Texas to California to New York, then spent 11 autumn weeks riding trains throughout Western Europe. Then summers faded into work and what to do with the kids (day and sleepaway camps).

When I moved my office home 15 years ago and shifted from writing advertising to fiction, I established a new routine. Breakfast and the newspaper, a walk, reading Torah, writing, lunch out combined with a walk, more writing, walking before dinner. Evenings, Carolyn and I watch one of our TV shows. And read.

Even without sports, my week maintains its rhythm. Monday: AMC’s “Better Call Saul.” Thursday night: family Zoom get-together. Friday morning: posting these thoughts. Friday evening: Sherith Israel’s Kabbalat Shabbat services on Zoom followed by Shabbat dinner with Carolyn. Saturday morning: Zoom Torah Study then Zooming with friends. Sunday night: Showtime’s “Homeland.”

I’m fortunate. Many Americans haven’t the financial resources or familiar tasks to anchor them. They’re adapting. They must.

Eventually the pandemic will end. We’ll heal our wounds. Not to make light of the suffering now being endured and what may follow, the nation, as always, will move forward. I hope to be part of that. Time will tell.

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SICKENING

I almost tossed my cookies in front of the TV Tuesday. No, I wasn’t sick. It’s just that I saw part of Donald Trump’s live remarks to journalists on CNN. Sickening.

The president told the assembled reporters and government officials that he called the COVID-19 problem a pandemic before anyone else did. I’ll repeat that. B-e-f-o-r-e. So let’s take a brief look at Trump’s record, detailed exhaustively by New York Times columnist Dave Leonhardt.

On March 13, Trump announced a national emergency. Good. That freed up federal funds for a variety of sound uses and streamlined various health care procedures to fight coronavirus. But if Trump recognized the pandemic long before, why did he wait?

And wait he did.

Two days earlier, Trump addressed the nation during a special telecast. “I want to speak to you about our nation’s unprecedented response to the coronavirus outbreak,”he said. Prune-faced, he looked like a man who’d soiled his boxers but was duct-taped to his chair. Unprecedented? That word applies only to ignoring public health advisors and underplaying cases of COVID-19 by not yet declaring that national emergency. Trump wanted to keep the stock market and economic numbers up. And how has that worked out?

But surely, the president had been forthcoming, resolute and far-sighted before that? Well, no. On March 7, Trump stated, “I’m not concerned at all.” Do the math. That’s all of six days before the declaration of a national emergency.

On February 26, three days after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic—Trump’s judgment obviously having preceded theirs—he said, “We’re [U.S. cases] going down, not up.” At a February 10 campaign rally and in an interview with Fox Business’s Trish Regan—since dismissed from her show—“Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.” By next month? Miraculously?

Let’s go back to February 2. Trump banned most foreigners who’d recently visited China from entering the U.S., something he bragged about last Tuesday. He told Fox’s Sean Hannity, “Well, we pretty much shut it down coming in from China.” Which presumed that coronavirus hadn’t appeared elsewhere. Too little, too late? On January 22, Trump said from Davos, Switzerland “… we have it totally under control.”

Our nation’s response to coronavirus says a lot about how we as Americans see reality. Some of it has been, yes, sickening.

A variety of conservative politicians and pundits have linked coronavirus to domestic and foreign plots. At a February 28 campaign rally, Trump promoted their conspiracy theories. He called coronavirus a hoax and added, “The Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus” to damage him and his administration.

I’m waiting for conservative Christian ministers to declare coronavirus God’s punishment of a sinful nation allowing a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.

I wrote last week that we’ll come through this. To do it, I suggest we replicate the attitude of the Israelites in the wilderness who, in this week’s double Torah portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei, demonstrate the strength of community by all bringing abundant gifts for the building of the Tabernacle.

Our task is to come together and respect fact, science and truth. The big question we’ll face when coronavirus is done: What did we learn? We’ll have part of that answer in November.

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PRECAUTION, NOT PANIC

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine wrote as America struggled to birth itself. Now, we face the coronavirus pandemic. To strengthen our souls, looking back may offer a clearer picture of the future.

Is the sky falling? Gray clouds have gathered and they’re darkening. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, “It is going to get worse.” At my age, Covid-19 poses a risk, although my health is excellent. Still, the world won’t come to an end.

Am I a Pollyanna? No, a realist. Major events of my 75-year lifetime provide some perspective.

When I was six, Americans were fighting in Korea—wherever that was. At P.S. 174 in Queens, I joined classmates in duck-and-cover drills to protect from a Soviet nuclear attack on New York. Polio still took a heavy toll on children. A friend survived it but emerged with a limp.

Jim Crow was alive and well in the south and practiced unofficially elsewhere. This, too, was a health scare since African Americans’ health was imperiled by being hung from a tree or shot or burned while at home.

The Cold War produced Vietnam. The American toll in Southeast Asia totaled 58,000, including my friend 1LT Howie Schnabolk, an Army medevac pilot shot down on 3 August 1967. Killed and wounded GIs were just part of the story.

The nation was coming apart at the seams. Nightsticks and dogs attacked civil rights marchers. Martin Luther King was assassinated, which led to riots producing death and destruction in urban ghettos. Political unrest forced Lyndon Johnson to forego running for another term as president in 1968. Which gave us Richard Nixon.

American industry took a header. Japanese cars battered Detroit. Then all sorts of industrial jobs fled the Midwest—soon to be known as the Rust Belt—for the American south and then Asia. AIDS emerged in the 1980s. It took the lives of as many as 700,000 Americans, including three of my fraternity brothers.

In the ’90s, the Dot.com Boom lifted a lot of people’s spirits—until the Dot.com Bust sent them plummeting. On 9/11, the Twin Towers fell and turmoil reigned. The nation rose up yet launched a foolish and costly war with Iraq. The stock market soared again until, in 2008, the financial industry collapsed with the market hitting its low point in March 2009.

Yet even recovery from the Great Recession wasn’t enough to calm a deeply divided America. Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016.

I’ve seen a lot, but so did my parents: The First World War, the Spanish flu (1918-20) which killed over 50 million worldwide and more than half a million Americans, the Depression, World War Two.

In time of crisis, I turn to the English writer Rudyard Kipling: “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you . . . you’ll be a Man my son!”

Keep washing your hands. Keep maintaining your social distance. Keep your head on your shoulders and your chin up. Male, female or nonbinary, you’ll be a mensch. And as a nation, we’ll get to sing along with another Briton, Elton John: “I’m Still Standing.”

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APU AND ME

If you’re a fan of TV’s The Simpsons (if not, keep reading anyway), you may have noticed something during this thirty-first season. Apu, the Indian-American owner of Kwik-E-Mart, may be missing. At least, vocally. Hank Azaria, who’s voiced Apu since 1990, believes the character is inappropriate. I understand. But based on two other characters I love, I disagree.

Apu, with his South Asian accent, indeed is a caricature. Yet in India, English-speakers evidence a similar accent. Only there, you have the accent. So that feature of the caricature is fact-based. Also, many non-U.S.-born Indian-Americans run convenience stores, motels and restaurants. It’s a typical immigrants’ story.

Now consider: All characters on The Simpsons are caricatures. From Homer down, they exhibit more breadth than depth. Their foibles make us laugh and sometimes cringe. Yet as each episode ends, they reveal a goodhearted humanity.

Granted, some characters have more trouble connecting with their better selves. Exhibit A: Krusty the Clown aka Herschel Krustofsky. I started watching The Simpsonsduring season three after virtually boycotting the show. I hadn’t liked what I read about it. But I saw thatThe Simpsonswould air an episode in which Krusty falls out with his father—a rabbi. I gathered the family in front of the TV. We were hooked.

Talk about caricatures! Krusty is the show-biz veteran—and ham—from Hell. He’s a serial abuser of alcohol, drugs, women and his fans. Worse, he’s not funny. Which makes him very funny.

Krusty is counterbalanced by Rabbi Krustofsky, voiced by the comedian Jackie Mason—also an ordained rabbi. Rabbi Krustofsky is kind, understanding and wise. Yet he’s a mild caricature, part of traditional Orthodoxy that’s a minority within American Jewry. Like the “Rally Rabbi” bobblehead the Giants give away on Jewish Heritage Night, he’s not typical. But so what?

Despite their caricature status, I love Krusty and Rabbi Krustofsky for two reasons. First, they place me in the American cultural mirror. Growing up, I rarely saw Jewish characters on TV or in the movies unless they were unfunny caricatures—stereotypes. They weren’t me and my family or anyone I knew. Reason number two: For more than half-a-century, Americans have seen Jews take their places across public life, including non-stereotypical roles in entertainment. Anti-Semites might see us as caricatures, but a great many Americans know better.

Apu requires some perspective. In 1990, when he first appeared, South Asians were rarely seen in the media and, if so, as caricatures. If there was a time to exclude Apu from The Simpsons, that was it.

Cut to 2020. South Asians are part of the fabric of American life. Many can be seen all over the airwaves and in film. They’re news reporters, anchors, comics, actors. They appear as expert commentators through their roles in government, the justice system and technology. Nikki Haley served as governor of South Carolina and ambassador to the U.N. In short, South Asians now appear as fully developed human beings.

So, maybe Hank Azaria’s and Apu’s critics will relent. I’d love to see Apu take his place alongside Krusty and Rabbi Krustofsky. Apu can be caricatured like the show’s other characters of all ethnicities, including Whites, because ultimately he comes from a group with an identity overriding all other ethnic considerations—American.

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FAREWELL, YESTERDAY

The train hurtled eastward through Queens on an early-January day when dingy brick buildings and bare trees turn New York into the bleak set of a Tim Burton movie. As Manhattan receded, so did part of my past.

I was born in the Bronx where my sister Kay had been delivered, but I grew up in Queens. My parents moved to Rego Park about two years before my arrival. Our apartment was my only home until college.

In December 1969, a few months after Carolyn and I were married in San Antonio, we visited my parents. (My mother Blanche alerted my father, “Morris, David has a girl in his room!”) We visited often as a couple then with our kids. After my father died in 1983, I spent one or two long weekends with my mother each year.

After my mother died in 1999, Carolyn and I continued visiting New York. We stayed in Manhattan and usually took the train from Penn Station to Long Island to see Kay and my brother-in-law Herb.

We also took the subway to Rego Park. We’d walk up 63rd Drive, stop at the old building, stroll the neighborhood and have lunch at the now-departed Shalimar Diner. (See “Death of the Diner.”)

My parents ate thousands of meals and desserts at the Shalimar and later, Carolyn and I entertained family and friends there. In Rego Park, I felt connected to my past, and Carolyn knew the neighborhood well. We shared memories.

The Shalimar’s closing made the Rego Park phase of my life more distant, but I thought we’d visit one last time during spring, summer or fall weather. We’d walk up the Drive, stop at the building, then head through the Crescents—tree-lined semi-circular streets with detached homes—pass P.S. 174 and go on for lunch on Austin Street in Forest Hills. We’d return to Manhattan via the E or F train at Continental Avenue.

Two weeks ago, we took the train to the Island to see Kay and Herb and be joined by my nephew Barry and his wife Heidi. I saw a sign.

Always when we’d approached Rego Park, I’d look out the window for a snippet of 63rd Drive. This time, the noon light outside was dim, and not being seated at the window, I was subjected to glare. I sensed when we passed the Drive but couldn’t see it. Returning at night, everything was a dark blur.

The message was clear. My parents are long gone. The Shalimar is a hole in the ground where an apartment building soon will rise. I’m 75, and there’s no more connection to be made with Rego Park—not on the ground.

I’ve always believed that a neighborhood, which undergoes continuous change, belongs to the people who live, shop and work there. At my age, I’m focused on the here and now—life in San Francisco. Without being maudlin, I understand that I’m on a different journey. It’s taking me forward, not back, and the station isn’t all that far off. I’m content to take each day as it comes and let memories unfold in my mind rather than on the sidewalk.

In 1940, a Thomas Wolfe novel was published posthumously: You Can’t Go Home Again. You can. But not forever.

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QUEENS SYNDROME

I’m not spoiling season three of Amazon Prime’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel when I say I love the show, but one episode offended me.

Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) declares that her son will attend private school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and not a public school in Queens. With those people. I’m one of those people—P.S. 174, Russell Sage Junior High (J.H.S. 190) and Forest Hills High. I’m no big deal, but many outstanding people (and some less so) come from Queens and the other “outer boroughs”—Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island.

As a kid, I never heard the term outer boroughs. It’s a pejorative used by Manhattanites—many from Ohio, Nebraska, Alabama and California—describing the uncouth working people whose sole function is serving the interests of the educated, taste-making elite living on the only island worth inhabiting. Until rents forced many trendy, stylish citizens to flee to Brooklyn (Park Slope, Williamsburg) and from there to—gasp!—Queens (Astoria, Long Island City).

Actually, I’m not all that terribly put out, but— Okay, I am. Queens Syndrome is typical of attitudes throughout America. Manhattan looks down on Queens. New York City looks down on New Jersey and, well, almost everywhere. The coasts look down on the heartland. The East Coast looks down on the Atlantic shore south of Washington, D.C. excepting South Florida.

Those put down as near-Neanderthals (who were quite accomplished) return the favor. The heartland condemns coastal elites as fake Americans surrounding themselves with dangerous immigrants (to garden, work in restaurants).

Note: Chicago is the hub of the Midwest, but Cook County’s Mexican-American population numbers over 750,000. Then there’s the Windy City’s huge African American population. And history as a Democratic bastion. For many conservatives, Chicago is a city to scorn along with New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. Faux-heartland cities like Dallas and Atlanta are also upsetting the conservative apple cart.

America’s problem is that many people refuse to look past geography and ethnicity. Different becomes a synonym for bad. Differences exist among varying cultures but also considerable similarities. Still, how can you possibly talk to thosepeople. Those Queensites!

Sadly, America’s divide—hardly new but more public these past three years—has encouraged the rest of the world to widen its own long-standing rifts. It’s okay in Europe to be anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant. Look at the U.S. It’s fine for India’s Hindu nationalists to bar immigrant Muslims from citizenship. (As it stands, India has 200 million Muslim citizens.) And if China terrorizes its Uighur Muslims, so what? Hiding behind security concerns, Donald Trump signed an executive order banning immigrants, refugees and visitors from seven nations, five predominantly Muslim.

Of course, Islamists seek to impose their version of Islam on fellow Muslims. Blood flows. They also target others. Christians in Muslim lands are suffering. Jews—not only Israel—remain objects of hatred. But don’t confuse Islamists with Muslims who wish to live in peace with the world.

Entering 2020, my Queens soul offers bad news and good. The bad: Baseless hatred will continue. Half the world believes I’m going to hell. The good: We can abate such hatred if only we demonstrate the will.

We could start by trashing the term outer boroughs.

In spite of what you just read, Happy New Year!

The post, following this feverish bout of writing, will take two weeks off and return on Friday, January 17.

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CIRCLED WAGONS

Lindsey Graham (R.-So. Carolina), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, made a startling statement last Tuesday before flip-flopping on Wednesday. It revealed much about the impeachment inquiry and how a large segment of the country is circling the wagons.

Graham said he wouldn’t read the transcripts of closed-door hearings—open to Republican committee members—released by House Democrats. “I’ve written the whole process off . . . I think this is a bunch of B.S.” Translation: Evidence be damned. This mirrors the attitude of much of pro-Trump white rural America.

“To rural white conservatives,” Robert Leonard wrote in the New York Times (10-14), “their culture is being rubbed out right before their eyes.” Whites see themselves enduring religious prejudice. “Democrats have banned Jesus from the public sphere at great cost to society and the potential salvation of millions.”

Ethnic cleansing in America? Native Americans can sympathize.

Yet according to the Times (10-29), Ralph Drollinger, 65, founder of Capitol Ministries— “Making disciples of Jesus Christ in the political arena”—has been teaching the Gospel to President Trump’s cabinet. So Christianity is very much present in the public sphere. That’s fine—when Bible classes take place before or after working hours.

Are whites really under the gun? Many in post-industrial and rural America are hurting economically. That’s bad for all of us. But examine the economic circumstances of many African Americans and Latinos. Whites now suffering the loss of jobs and hope long have had a great deal of company.

What whites seemingly can’t abide is their loss of majority status and its accompanying power. Who created Jim Crow? Rich whites have always controlled the nation’s wealth, leaving poor whites with one comfort: They could see themselves as superior to all other ethnic groups. Yet in a decade or two, whites will become a plurality—the nation’s largest minority.

If America’s minorities now enjoy increased visibility “at white expense,” the phenomenon is relatively recent. When I was a kid, only one TV show portrayed then-called Negroes—Amos & Andy. It originated as a hit radio show created and performed by whites. Only one TV show presented Jews—Gertrude Berg’s The Goldbergs. Other minorities? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Jewish characters in movies? Rarely. Jewish movie stars? Many, including Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, John Garfield, Judy Holliday, Lee J. Cobb and Shelly Winters—all assigned screen (non-Jewish) names.

To whites who support Donald Trump, who vowed they could again celebrate Christmas, I ask: Has America ever not? I rarely see anything in the media or the public square relating to Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and other religious holidays. Christmas in liberal, secular San Francisco? Inescapable.

The truth that frightens so many Trump supporters is this: Whiteness does not constitute the standard for good citizenship and patriotism. What part of “liberty and justice for all” is hard to understand?

Here, let me say that no white person should ever think he or she is second-rate. Condemning anyone for being white also constitutes racism.

So, will Jesus-fearing whites abandon their persecution complex? I don’t know. I do know that  America’s minorities have experienced the real horrors of racism and anti-Semitism. Still do.

If whites can step outside those circled wagons and demand a better America for everyone, they’ll join all Americans in moving forward.

The post will take off next Friday and return on November 22.

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MY LLAMAS

There’s so much to write about, I had difficulty deciding on a topic. So I settled on something seemingly absurd but quite profound.

No, not the House’s impeachment inquiry (now, associates of Rudy Giuliani have been arrested). Or Trump’s throwing the Syrian Kurds under the bus—abandoning allies who helped dismantle ISIS’ “caliphate” and leaving Turkey to attack them. And threatening to dismantle Turkey’s economy.

I could ask—and answer—why members of Congress, sworn to uphold the Constitution, oppose it by supporting Trump. Although they might not agree with his Monday statement re the Kurds and Turkey self-praising his “great and unmatched wisdom.” Yes, he said that.

Instead, let me tell you about the herd of llamas—woolly Andean pack animals—living inside my head. And no, don’t call professional help to get me through some sort of breakdown. It’s simple. Really.

In March 2018, I posted “My New Favorite Word.” I focused on the Hebrew word lamah (LA-ma), which means why. Biblically, lamah often is short for l’mah yeud?—to what purpose? In essence, why would you do that?

The word moved me to consider what I’d gain if I dwelled on all the wrong and foolish things I’ve done in my life. All the things I regret. I’d already acknowledged them, often decades ago. Why torture myself, since I’ve tried to correct my behavior and apply what I learned to present and future actions?

Yet forgetting the wrongs we’ve done can lead us to abandon a sense of moral vigilance. That’s dangerous.

So, I came up with a visualization technique. My llamas enable me to remember past misdeeds but not get hung up on those transgressions and stupidities by stashing them in a special place in my mind. I’m guilty of compartmentalizing my emotions, something for which men frequently are assailed, but I claim extenuating circumstances.

After all, when I remind myself of something regrettable from the past—distant or recent—I ask myself, lamah? For what purpose should I rake myself over the coals? Depress myself? So I transform the misdeed into a llama and place it on a distant green hillside beneath a crystalline blue sky. It stands there among a vast herd of llamas occupying dozens of hillsides. They graze. They stare at me. Sometimes they spit in my direction. But they’re too far away to hurt me.

For sure, I acknowledge each and every llama, because they remind me that I can do better while lifting paralyzing guilt off my shoulders. Remember, they’re beasts of burden.

Last Tuesday evening and Wednesday, my llamas accompanied me to Yom Kippur services. On Yom Kippur, Jews recite the Vidui—a group confession. We acknowledge a great many sins. Individually, each of us may have committed only one or two. As a people of nearly 15 million, we’ve committed all, and we’re responsible, each for the other. Judaism is a highly communal religion.

My llamas enabled me to skip torturing myself with the past, as I used to, and focus on the future. How can I do better—not by repressing guilt but by bearing mine with a certain lightness? My llamas offered me comfort and hope that I’ll be a better person in 5780. And the best part: I can take them anywhere.

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WHALES, DOLPHINS AND AWE

I read Moby Dick ages ago and found myself fascinated by Herman Melville’s lengthy discourses on cetology, the study of whales. Last Wednesday, I joined my friends Ira and Dan on a whale watching trip hosted by the Oceanographic Society. In a word: awesome!

We departed on the Salty Ladyfrom the yacht harbor at the Marina Green off Scott Street. The two naturalists onboard and the captain all emphasized the incredible weather we’d have at sea: clear skies and mild—a relative matter—temperatures. (San Francisco hit 94 degrees that afternoon.)

On the way out, we spotted dolphins, porpoises, humpback whales and sea birds, including more than one albatross, and a rarely sighted skua. Because of the great weather, our captain decided to bypass the Farallon Islands at first and sail to the edge of the continental shelf. There, the seabed drops precipitously from 300 feet to 3,000. An upwelling of water brings nutrients and food sources providing great feeding to whales and other sea life.

Jaws dropped as humpbacks spouted then rose out of the water. We’d see their backs then a huge length of white foam as they submerged. Several jumped out vertically well past their heads. Others displayed their flukes—tails—as they dove.

At the peak of activity, we sighted a pod of at least three whales and maybe five. Spouts rose like the fountains at Las Vegas’ Bellagio Hotel. Dolphins and porpoises leapt by the boat with great frequency. A huge turtle came close—another rare sighting. An ocean sunfish swam alongside. I called out to the sea life, “Guys, slow down. There’s more to see here than we can take in!” They didn’t listen. No complaint from me.

Almost everyone missed the best sighting. After stopping by the Farallons to check out the birds and sea lions—we also saw houses for researchers and Coast Guard personnel—we headed back to San Francisco.

As we sat and chatted, Ira, who’d been seasick until noon and missed the action out at the continental shelf’s edge, spotted a humpback leap entirely out of the water and expose its white belly. By the time he called out, Dan and I could see only the splash. Only one or two others onboard saw the event. We were glad for Ira and had no problem missing what we’d love to have seen because we’d seen so much.

Sunday night, the Jewish world will observe Rosh Hashanah, marking the New Year 5780. The whales, dolphins, porpoises and birds I saw provided me with much added meaning. The ten-day period from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is known as the Days of Awe. As we contemplate how we’ve lived our lives and acknowledge the Source of Creation, the majesty of the synagogue service can raise our spirits only so far. We need perspective.

Being out on the Pacific, rising and falling with the swells, witnessing the sea’s sheer size and power, and seeing the magnificent creatures with whom we share the planet showed me how small I am and how huge is creation.

At this, or any, time of the year, a little awe-inspired humility can bring us closer to the marvels we can see and the mysteries we can’t.

The post will take next week off and return on October 11. For everyone celebrating Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, may you be written and sealed into the Book of Life.

Big Truth: New and Collected Stories,  is available at Amazon and bn.com in paper or e-book. Or, ask your favorite bookstore to order a copy. And, please leave a review on either or both sites.

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