Category Archives: Family

30th day of Lent. Being Open With Your Heart.

Some times I think the most important lesson I’ve learned as a parent comes down to two words: “Walk away.” During conflicts when hormones (theirs), and emotions (everyone’s) are flooding the landscape, it’s almost magic. You’re Harry Potter and expelliarmus-ing yourself out of the room, so that you can deal with whatever is happening when everyone is in a calmer place.

If there’s a corollary, it’s being vulnerable. For a chunk of time when children are small, what you say as a parent defines reality. Even if your child pushes back, appealing to your own authority is enough. We say things like “Because I’m your dad, that’s why” because they work. As our kids begin to get a sense that we’re not infallible we appeal to higher authorities and say things like, “Your teacher said,” or we invoke everyone from the Principal of our kid’s school, to the President of the United States, and God. Then comes the time when those appeals aren’t enough. This story is about what can happen when you get to the end of your rope, and suggests a way through when you do.

“Three times I tried to get my son Matthew not to steal comic books! This is the truth! I’m not sure why, but my son started this comic book collection. And when he couldn’t get them fast enough by buying them, well, he then began stealing them. I tried three different efforts to get Matthew to stop stealing comic books. Matthew! My dear son! My hungry son! Who collects whatever he collects … in the thousands! I tried my best to change him. Three times I used the old law; three times I was the fool.

The first time I found out that Matthew was stealing he had stolen from a public library. So I figured: shame the kid! I called up the librarian and said, “Look, I’m bringing the kid back, and he’s going to return the comic books which he stole from you. Would you please kind of — chastise him?” I thought that the Lord would look down upon Matthew and that he would feel very uncomfortable when the librarian chastised him. So Matthew came in, put the comics in front of her, and said his piece. And she said, “Matthew, Matthew.” (She was very good. She’s an excellent librarian!) “Do you know what you have done,” she said, steel-eyeing him. “You’ll never do that again, right?”

The second time I caught him stealing comic books, I tried a different tact. I used the Word of God, the seventh commandment. I didn’t know if he knew it well enough, so I shook my head and sighed a whole lot, and repeated all the commandments for him. And then for good measure I burned all of his comic books … one at a time. I thought that this disciplinary action was sure to change Matthew. “He’ll never steal comic books again,” I thought. “Look at this conflagration, doesn’t it remind you of hell?”

The third time Matthew stole comic books was while I was teaching at Seminex in St. Louis. While we were staying there, Matthew went around the corner and stole some comic books from a store. Well, that seemed more desperate then ever to me, because I was teaching the Word of God, and my son was stealing comic books!

So this is what I finally decided to do. I took Matthew into my study, and I spanked him. I laid him over my knees, as you do. I decided I should feel what he felt and use my bare hands right on Matthew’s bottom. I told him why I was doing it: that in this position he really left me no other choice. I had to spank him.

The first swat that came down on his bottom came hard. And when it did, I felt his entire body stiffen. And I don’t know why, People, but it was that stiffening that pierced me to the heart. It was that stiffening that made me breakdown on the inside. And I think I gave him maybe four or five good, solid swacks on his butt after that. ‘Cause he was so stiff. He was a board. My son was a board on my knees. And as soon as I was done, I left the room. I went out to where our piano is … in the hall, and I burst into tears. And blessed Thanne, my wife, she came over to comfort me, with her arms around me. Well, I cried at the thing I had done, and then I went back into the room.

Now, this is fortuitous, because I tell you the truth: A number of months later, while the family was driving in the car: out of nowhere, Matthew says to me, “Dad, do you know why I stopped stealing comic books?” (And he had stopped!) I said, “Yea, I finally spanked you.” He said, “What!” And he looked at me. He said, “No…. It’s because you cried….”” ~ Walter Wangerin, Jr., The Manger is Empty pp116-132. h/t Paul J. Nuechterlein

Sometimes the best way to encourage a change of heart, is being open with yours.




22nd day of Lent. The Cornucopia I’d Forgotten.

Yesterday I stood in the middle of Sahadi’s–a specialty foods store in Brooklyn Heights–staring at their selection of nuts and dried fruit. I was there with two wonderful friends. One said, “What do you like? Nuts? Dried fruit? Do you like hummus?” And the other, “Isn’t it amazing? Pick something. We want to buy you something.” “Oh, I have no idea” I said. And, “You don’t have to do that.” I was overwhelmed with the cornucopia of products, the commotion, and absolutely taken with their adorable toddler. Couldn’t I just keep playing with him?

There are multiple ways to express love. What’s less obvious is that there are ways we prefer not just to receive love, but give love as well. I didn’t realize people had a bias about love until several years ago when I read Gary Chapman’s book The Five Languages of Love. In his book Chapman does a nice job distilling five easy ways or languages of loving. According to Chapman, some prefer to show their love with physical touch, while others prefer to show their love through acts of service. There is also spending quality time, sharing words of affirmation, and receiving gifts. The idea is not that we don’t value all of these ways. Most people do. The key insight is that because we prefer some more than others it is helpful to appreciate the love language your partner has so that you can love them in ways they’ll appreciate, and easily see. It’s also important to understand theirs so that you can remember what is important to them as they go about loving you. Who wants to miss being loved?

Standing in Sahadi’s, it became clear that it would make my friends happy if I picked a few things. They–I know this is obvious–were simply trying to show me their love. When it comes to loving, the worst thing we can do, is refuse. As Michael Himes points out in the talk I listened to the other day, unrequited love is as painful as it is because we are made in the image of God, who is love. When our love is rejected, the pain reaches to our core.

We left Sahadi’s with five pounds of love. As we walked away from the store, I picked up their toddler. “Would he let me do that?” I wondered. At first it didn’t go well. I tried facing him forward. “Mommy?” he said plaintively. That was better but not good enough. I lifted him high into the air, and then down. High into the air and then down. “Look honey, he’s smiling” my friend said to her spouse. As we walked my actions gave them both a small break from actively parenting. I was delighted. Being of service is the my favorite way of expressing love.

As we parted I remembered something I’d left out of yesterday’s refection about grieving. It’s something David Malham says about love in his piece Momento Mori:

“The awareness of premature or unexpected endings can motivate us to routinely demonstrate our love to those important to us. Let’s not save our affection, as if a rare wine, for special occasions. Give and receive it as essential nourishment.”

Love given and received, overflows. It’s too easy to forget this cornucopia is there when you’re with people you love. I forget all the time. Today, with quality time, five pounds of gifts, and a toddler lifted high, I remembered.


19th day of Lent. The Most Extraordinary Statement About Being Human.

After soccer practice today Sweet’s called me. She said, “Dad, guess what?” “What?” I said, expecting the latest update on the recent drama she’s been experiencing with her friends. She said it again, “Guess what?” She really wanted a guess. “Your mom picked you up from practice.” “Yes. But that’s not it. It’s so cool.” That wasn’t what I was expecting her to say. I punted. “You’re going to have to tell me. I’m stumped!” She paused. “I scored a goal!” “A goal? Fantastic. Wow!” It was practice, yes. It’s also her first time playing soccer. She’s having fun. For that I’m grateful.

Later I ask about the day at school, and its related drama. “I learned that Mary thinks this, and Rose (not their real names) thinks that. It doesn’t make sense.” As she relays the stories it’s clear that they’re hard to experience again and again. At the same time, she’s beginning to learn that what’s going on isn’t about her. There may have been tears in school when she heard the latest gossip. By the time she returned home and said the words “it doesn’t make sense” she spoke them plainly, with a hint of disbelief. This isn’t over for her, not by any means. Still, if she can find this place enough times, she’ll be ok.

I listened to a rich talk today about family life, and what it teaches us about love. Michael Himes is a professor at Boston College, and gave the talk as part of BC’s student speaker series called Agape Latte. The talk is 25 minutes long and is worth watching. I played his closing comments several times over. They became a personal gif, and in that a mantra for prayer. Perhaps you’ll find them helpful, too:

“[W]hat family gives us an intimate chance to do, in circumstances that may be very supportive or very painful…[is] the opportunity to give ourselves, to learn how to give ourselves to one another wisely and courageously and with tremendous forgiveness and deep acceptance.

If you learn that, you’ve learned everything that you need to know. If you learn everything else and you never find that out, you’ve missed what it is to be a human being, because human beings are called to be the people who do what God is. God is agape, and we get to enact it. That is the most extraordinary statement about being a human being that I know.”


8th day of Lent.

I was stuck in my head for a bit this evening. I found myself with three hours to do five hours worth of tasks. There was no way it was going to happen. Absolutely no way. That didn’t stop me from trying. After all my mind convinced me everything could get done.

In My Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte-Taylor likes to point out that “Most of us think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, but we are actually feeling creatures that think.” We’ve got it backwards, and our minds willingly support this idea. And why not? They have a marvelous ability to create worlds that don’t exist anywhere, and convince us that they’re real. I did that tonight. As time passed my stress level increased, and there was no way I was going to stop what I was doing to figure out that I was in my head because I didn’t have time! I was impatient with my daughter, and lashed out at my son who had the gall to catch my stress and become stressed, himself. I’d wanted to return to the dinner conversation we’d had about whether emotions were contagious, yes. But not this way.

Seeing him stressed helped the smallest part of me realize that the drama I was in wasn’t real. It was just something I’d made up. I looked at him. “Why are you upset?” I asked. Wrong question. In moments like that any question is the wrong question. It’s just fodder. “I’m upset because you’re upset. And I didn’t do anything!” Fortunately, I’d started letting go of my stress, even as he’d caught mine. That helped keep the loop we were in short. I sent him off to Karate, and did some focusing-based repair later. It was a good reminder that knowing the importance of stopping and paying attention to what’s happening to you, and doing it are different things. I have a lot to learn.


All The Gifts There Are.

Yesterday I took the Christmas gifts I’d purchased and lay them across my bed. A few more were still to arrive, courtesy of angels dressed in coffee brown. I wanted to see what I’d collected during the last several months, and if everything made sense. I’d made my list and was checking it a second time. Seeing the gifts on my bed helped me realize that I wasn’t quite ready, present-wise. I needed to pick up a few things, last-minute. More shopping? I sighed. I wasn’t looking forward to it.

Sweets is struggling with some of her friends. The other day, she received a text to an old cell number asking if the rumor was true that she didn’t like any of the people she ate lunch with. What an awful question for a friend to ask. And awful to see as a parent. I wanted to reply. I knew I couldn’t. While we were making dinner I let her know that the text had come and what it said.

“What’s going on? Is everything ok?” I asked.

“It’s a long story.”

“I have time now, if you want to talk about it.” She told me the story.

“I don’t understand. I apologized for making them think that.”

“You apologized? Why did you apologize?” I said.

I was feeling defensive on her behalf. I trust her, and she’s a great kid. I know too, that the details upon which things hinge might be beyond her awareness. Her comfort level talking about this with me is also an issue no matter how beloved she is.

“Do you like the kids at your table?” I asked. She shot me a look that let me know my question was too blunt.

Her eyes watered. “It’s a rumor, dad. You know how rumors are.”

“I know. It’s hard.”

“I’m trying. the other day I was telling one friend at the table a story and she fake-laughed. I mean, really fake-laughed. Then she looked at some of the other girls.”

“Ugh. That’s awful” I said.

“I don’t know what to do. It’s frustrating.”

I thought for a moment. “The other day, I saw you talking with–”

Sweets interrupted me. “Yeah. We’re ok. I worked it out with her.”

“That’s wonderful” I said. “I think that’s the right idea. Keep looking for moments like that when you can have good talks with your friends. Don’t worry about explaining yourself or trying to understand. Be who you say you are. That’s one of the most important things a person can do. Show your friends by your actions and your words that you like them. That way the reality they experience will blow the rumor away. It won’t happen right away. It will take time. You just keep being you. Keep showing them that the person you are on the inside is someone who likes them, even though they can’t see it on the outside. Sometimes it’s just hard to see what’s in front of you. You know, the way I sometimes look for the hat that’s already sitting on my head.” She smiled. We hugged, and continued making dinner.

Christmas is about to begin. While it’s good to give, it’s a period of peak tension. There is only one shopping day left. Do I have all the gifts I want to give? Am I forgetting anyone? Rushing to and fro makes it hard to remember who we are, and why we’re doing what we’re doing. Last night I dreaded heading out to shop. I left late and parked in the lot of a movie theater behind the strip of shops that were my destination. I did everything I could to avoid the crowds. I wanted to zip quickly in and out of stores, conserve my energy, etc. I wasn’t looking forward to it.

As I left one store I ran into a woman I sing with in my church choir. While in another I saw another choir member, and her son. Their warm smiles helped me remember that I was doing not just what I needed to do. I was in my community, doing something I wanted, for others. In a way my Christmas began last night as God became incarnate in those two small moments. They helped me forget that my last-minute timing was bothering me. It didn’t matter. They helped me remember who I was, and why I was doing what I was doing. When what we think and feel, lines up with everything we’re doing on the outside? That alignment of presence is a present greater than all the gifts there are.

Tagged , , , ,

Why Is This Night Different From All Other Nights?

Tonight at dinner Sweets complained that she wished her cell phone had a front-facing camera, so that she could Skype her friends. Hearing this Bud muttered, “That’s such a first world problem.” Sweets looked at him quizzically. “What do you mean?” “Well, the richest countries in the world are the First World countries. The next level are Second World. Then poorer countries, are Third World countries.” He paused. I looked to see if Sweets recognized the terms he was using. That’s when I heard Bud say, “Dad? Can you help?” I turned toward him. “You’re doing fine. Why don’t you give her some examples of what you mean?”

It’s Passover, and Easter is just around the corner. This morning while searching for a Passover quote by Walter Brueggemann–my favorite Hebrew Scripture scholar–I stumbled across this article by Carol Sowa about a talk he gave in 2002. In the talk, Brueggemann considers the important role Scripture plays in offering a sense of reality that contrasts with our typical understanding of the way things are:

The narratives of the Torah are designed to construct an alternative world. The oracles of the prophets are basically designed to subvert…. to call into question, to expose its (the world’s) inadequacy and phoniness.

Interesting words. Most of us don’t walk around thinking that our sense of reality is limited or inadequate. It’s more typical, I think, to believe our personal understanding of the way things are is as considered, and well thought out. At the same time, when we meet someone with a different perspective, it the experience is flummoxing. We find ourselves wondering how it is possible that such an otherwise decent person could think the way they do. We can’t imagine the possibility that this other person has given as much care to thinking through their thoughts and ideas, as we have. This is true, even when we live in the same neighborhood, and our kids attend the same schools. We don’t know how to value their different perspective.

My kids often take pleasure reminding me that my way of looking at things is limited. There was a time when their mom and I were two people with all the answers they needed. Our word, and God’s? One and the same. That time has passed. Tonight in that same conversation, I talked about wanting to see a new exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Hearing that Sweets responded, “Dad. Do you know what going to a museum with you is like? You spend an hour in front of a single painting. Then you say something like, “Do you see the bit of yellow in the corner? That changes it completely for me!” She laughed and continued. “At least it’s not as bad as when you take pictures.” She mimes holding a camera. “You’ll look at a flower from every angle you can so you don’t miss anything.” Bud waited for her to finish, then asked wryly, “Isn’t your major Visual Arts?” “Shut up” was all she said in reply.

In Sowa’s article about Brueggemann’s talk she notes that:

He sees the missionary task of the church…”to enhance the human for the sake of our common humanity….I propose that our task is to help people host an alternative world of imagination that arises from narratives and oracles.”  [T]his is accomplished through the telling of stories which “invites the children into an amazed, dazzled world of miracles.”

It’s Passover. You can see the edge of this happening during Passover Seders. Throughout the meal, it’s the kids who have the most fun. Before the story of the Exodus is read, the youngest asks a basic question: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The Four Questions follow, all to help the kids understand why this meal is celebrated the way it is. At the end of the meal, they search for the Afikomen, and hope for the reward that comes with finding it, first.

From time to time, Sweets asks me, “Why do we have pasta every night?” When she does, I’ll sometimes walk her back through her last week of meals. Even though I can show her that before the evening’s meal she hasn’t had pasta in nearly a week, it’s hard for her to let go of her conviction. Letting go is often one of the hardest things we do. We fear that when we let go, we’ll lose something in the process. The result is that we’re good at holding on tightly.

What we don’t see is that when we let go, we create space for things to happen. Things we didn’t imagine we could see or think, understand, feel, and express can take place. Things that are different. As a parent, a chunk of helping to created those spaces involves keeping my mouth shut. That isn’t always easy to do. It’s easier for me to explain a concept I’m familiar with, than it is to let Bud work through his ideas as best he can. In many ways, the best thing I can do for him, is be encouraging. Help is affirming him, and no more. He has do it on his own. That’s me, letting go so that he can stretch. It’s also remembering that Sweets tells her stories out of love, even when she complains.  She’s reminding me that the way I experience things isn’t the way she does. We help each other grow, and adapt when we’re able to listen, and accept.

I want to them to feel comfortable stretching.What my kids don’t know is that life is full of impossible crossings. When I look back, I see many times when my imagination failed me. Something happened and I couldn’t see any way I would get through. And then, I did. What seemed impossible, and a threat, passed over. Catching moments like that has always amazed me. Of course they did. They’re the sort of miracles we live in our every day. Examples of possibility that made a day, or night, different from any other before it.




Tagged , ,

Ten Lessons I Learned From My Other Dad.

I’ve always thought of myself as someone whose been lucky enough to have had two dads instead of one. Seventeen years ago today, I lost my other dad. What follows are a handful of the things I learned from knowing him.

1. Let your life be about abundance.

My example of this is a small one. Most Sundays, breakfast consists of two eggs fried sunny side up, with bacon, hash browns, toast, and a great cup of coffee. That is, unless I have something to celebrate. Then the hash browns turn into potato salad. The toast turns into an “everything” bagel, the butter a smear of cream cheese blended with, or topped with lox (and onion, and capers). Sometimes I’ll skip the lox, and substitute white fish salad. When this breakfast becomes lunch I keep the eggs, and add the white fish salad as a side. Just like that, lunch becomes a feast. I didn’t grow up on these breakfast foods. Bay and Annie shared them with me. What good is the richness of your bounty, if it isn’t shared?

2. Be welcoming.

When a friend comes to your door, greet them with a smile and a bear of a hug. Every time. It’s the way he welcomed me every time I visited. It’s the way I welcome people I love.

3. Laugh, and laugh again.

My dad gave me my love of everything Broadway, and did his best to teach me about Classical music. We saw good movies, and many of them had to do with music (funny that). Bay helped me discover my love for physical comedy. It was with him that I first watched–on television–the wonder that is “It’s a Mad Mad Mad World.” There’s a fabulous collection of moments from the film here. My dad is quieter than Bay was. Watching it, Bay laughed to the point of tears. More than anything, when I think of the way I know to laugh, and that it’s okay to simply let loose, and laugh myself to the point where I’m gasping for breath? That was one of his gifts to me.

4. Don’t forget to laugh at yourself.

He owned an unusual looking car. A brand I’d never heard of. An Avanti. A what? Exactly. What I remember most about it was that it often didn’t run. One time, would-be thieves tried to steal it from a repair shop, and failed. They started it, rolled it into the side of the shop, and left it there. The car didn’t have any brakes. Or was it, no steering? It may well have been both! Whenever he told the story, he laughed.

Once while in high school I was out driving with a group of friends. I was in my car, a Dodge. JBR, Bay’s son–and my best friend–was driving his dad’s Avanti. We were driving aimlessly as teens can, happy to have friends in both cars. More importantly, some of these friends were girls we hoped to impress. We needed a destination. I tried to flag him down and was unsuccessful. Knowing that he’d boasted the Avanti had a Corvette engine, and knowing that mine had a powerful engine of its own, I decided on a manly approach. I would pass him. We were driving in an empty county park after dusk. What could happen? 

I stunned JBR with the attempt, and was successful. As soon as I passed him, I saw blue lights in my rear view. A county police officer ticketed me for speeding. I was driving a grand 40 mph in a 25 mph zone. “Officer,” I said, “we weren’t racing. I was trying to get him to stop.” I actually said those words. “License and registration” was all I heard in reply. A speeding ticket for driving forty miles per hour? Yes, I was foolish to speed, even at that rate. Reasoning with the officer? That was pure folly. Later that night, I was too stunned to laugh. Too afraid of what my dad would say. When he heard the story? Bay laughed out loud, and out of love. My dad? I think he laughed too. Me? It took a while.

5. Some choices are simple and make perfect sense. When they do, make them.

What else stays? When I joined Bay’s family for trips to dinner, or to see a movie, we always took their Civic. It was new, and tiny. What did I notice most? It ran and ran, and ran. After the folly of the Avanti, it was the perfect car.

I purchased the first car I owned from his eldest daughter. It was five years old, a diesel, and got fifty miles on a gallon of fuel. I asked a mechanic about it. He told me that diesel engines “ran forever.” The car was immaculate. She had every receipt for every repair and oil change the car had ever had. That choice was simple. Seven years later, and with over 170,000 miles on the odometer, I gave it away and replaced it with an Acura. I’d planned on buying a Civic, longed for an Accord, and ended up with an Acura for a price in between a Civic and an Accord. That was also a simple choice. It is also as close as I’ve come to an Avanti moment. Fortunately the Acura ran well, and long. By the time I gave it away, I’d replaced everything on it except the engine block. Now I drive a Civic. It too, runs and runs, and runs.

6. Life is about taking care of others.

My folks raised me with a strong sense of Catholic tradition. In practice, my understanding about what’s most important, revolves around what people do, not what they say they believe. That’s orthopraxis trumping orthodoxy. I remember many conversations over dinner, and after dinner, having to do with healthcare, and the emergence of HIV. What mattered most to Bay–as I remember–was doing whatever could be done to help those who had HIV, and to protect those at risk for contracting the virus. Even now, his passion for justice, informs both my faith, and my life.

7. Share your stories.

It doesn’t matter how many times you tell your stories. Tell them again. Stories are one of the ways we help each other remember that we share a human experience. That matters. Bay loved to look over the top of his glasses when he wanted to reinforce a point he was making, or deliver a punch line to a great story. With a gleam in his eye, and a smile on his face, I wanted to listen, even when I’d heard the story before (sometimes especially then). 

In 1947 Bay founded the Atlantic Chemical Corporation with his brother Rubin. Rubin is also a storyteller. Here are a few comments about Bay that are part of a larger, and very funny rendering of Rubin’s career in the dyestuffs industry. If you can imagine this story punctuated with laughter, along with hand gestures assuring you that the best is yet to come? Well, you’ll have a sense of the way Bay told stories.

“The most dynamic guy I know is my brother Bay. He is also the only man I know who could have built the Great Pyramids without stones. He could have done it on enthusiasm alone. Bay, my sons Jon and Josh, and I were the sole owners of Atlantic.

I remember once a frantic call from Bay at the Nutley factory to me at our headquarters office. He needed some money immediately. Without a second thought, I quickly dispatched a messenger to Nutley with $200.00. I figured a “collect” freight must have arrived or something equally urgent. I called Bay to tell him that $200.00 was rushing on its way. Would it be enough? There was a prolonged silence…”I only needed money for a haircut,” said he.

Bay’s penchant for surplus machinery at bargain prices was legendary. Nothing compares to his purchase of one million dollars worth of Univac equipment from Army surplus for $5,000.00. Atlantic may have had the first computerized inventory system in the dye business.

One day I received this phone call: “Mr. Rabinowitz, this is the US Naval Base in New London, CT. We are pleased to inform you that yours was the successful bid on Lot #543A, one surplus, slightly used submarine. Please tell us where you would like this delivered.” I was absolutely and totally speechless. I couldn’t even stammer. The thought of a submarine parked in our yard next to micro-motors, Irish shillelaghs, lead-lined tanks and tons of hopcolite my dear brother had bought for “future” use was too much to absorb. All I could manage were some strangled sounds. Suddenly, I detected a giggle on the telephone wire. Who the *@#x* is this, I demanded? The laughter broke out in full force. It was Bill Hoffman, P.A. of Burlington Industries, surrounded by a bunch of other low-life friends of ours just having some fun at my expense.

To this day, very few people, except for Max Birnbaum, know that surplus beams from the second layer construction of the [George] Washington Bridge support much of Nutley’s equipment, Bay may have been given to overdesign since these beams could have supported the Empire State Building!”

8. How Love Works.

This piece of wisdom is the way he described his romance with his wife, Annie. I think it’s the only way love, for me, has ever worked:

I chased her, and chased her, and chased her. Finally, she caught me!

9. Words matter. People matter more.

Sometimes Bay would join JBR and I as we watched a baseball or football game on TV. I learned to look forward to the comments he made during the game. Invariably a certain moment would repeat. A play would end and he’d turn around. Looking at us over the top of his glasses, he’d shake his head and say, “Would you believe that? They did it again. He made a catch, not a ketch. A ketch is a boat for christ sake!” Words matter.

At the same time, he never corrected my usage of words. I’m sure I gave him many opportunities. For a time, I had a girl friend for who loved to correct every mistake in usage I ever made. He never did. They both helped me pay attention to the words I use. The people who use them? He continues to help me remember that they matter more.

10. Celebrate, and give honor where it is due.

Bay’s and Annie’s New Years parties were legendary. Their house would fill wall to wall with people. I’d see family, friends, neighbors, teachers, and more folks I didn’t know. To me, it seemed like they’d invited everyone in our town. At Hanukkah, Bay’d light the menorah, and the window facing the front of the living room would become quiet sacred space. “Blessed are you O Lord our God, King of the universe…”

When I was accepted to college. When I graduated. When I landed my first job. When I was engaged to be married (both times). When I married. What ever event was taking place in either family, they joined in or included me. We celebrated. Even moves. I helped with a number of moves. Wait a minute!

Bay passed away around the time “Bud” was conceived. When he was born, choosing his middle name was easy. Its Bay, and as his mom and I have always hoped, he’s becoming a man with a passion for life, and a love for people.

With appreciation, honor, and a lot of love for Bay Rabinowitz, born November 24, 1922 (a guesstimate), and who died on August 5, 1996. Thank you for all the lessons you keep teaching me.

What Matters: Living After Sandy Hook.

On Thursday, I did some last minute shopping at Target. At Sweets’ school, today is Pajama dress down day. The kids can wear pajamas to school in place of their regular uniforms. In preparation–after deciding she didn’t have anything suitable to wear at home–Sweets poured through racks of fleece and cotton sleepwear. Finding two different sets with potential, she asked, “Dad, where are the dressing rooms again?” “Walk from here to that corner over there” I said, while pointing to a wall on the other side of the store. “That’s where they are.” “Okay. I’m going to try these on. Will you be here when I get back?” “Yes” I said. She walked the fifty yards to the dressing rooms alone. I remained where I was, chatting with a friend. Target is a place where Sweets feels safe. I do, too.

While we were there, we ran into six other students, their parents, and one of the school’s First Grade teachers. Everyone was shopping for pajamas. I walked over to the teacher to say hello. It was the first time I’d had a moment with her since last Friday’s shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary. This teacher is a marvelous person, and such a good teacher that parents with children in her class, often request that she teach their next child as well. I’ve had that conversation. I’ve encouraged other parents to have that conversation. She’s that good. While we were talking, I swallowed hard. If my daughter’s school was Sandy Hook, she might have been one of the victims. It was a sobering moment.

Last Friday, when the news about the shootings broke, I was stunned. “Not again,” I thought. I spent much of the day driving. I was spending the weekend with my parents. My dad had heart bypass surgery just before Thanksgiving. He was coming home. I wanted to be available to help with any transition issues that might arise. I’d also planned to meet with a friend. We were going to organize Christmas cards. Mine never seem to make it into the mail (I say “maybe this year,” every year).

In the car, I moved in and out of the range of a given radio station’s signal. As I did I invariably ran into the tragedy as “breaking” news. It was disorienting. I didn’t want the drive to become an extended meditation on what had just happened. I turned off the radio and traded it for un-listened podcasts on my iPod.

I finished the drive, and met my friend. The first thing that came up in conversation? Sandy Hook. After a few minutes, we let the topic go. Like me, she was struggling to understand how something like this could have happened. A while later, I noticed her two year old trying to climb onto an office chair using the space under the arm rest as his entry point. Concerned that he might get stuck, or fall, I picked him up and held him high, so that he could touch the ceiling. I set him down and he bent his legs. He was ready to leap again. We repeated the play again and again. Enough times that he was able to hit the ceiling with his right hand, with his left, and with the two of them together in multiple combinations. We repeated this until my arms tired. For me, the moment of play became a symbolic action of a future filled with hope. One where he would break through whatever ceiling was before him. One, where the sky would be his limit.

In Target, the teacher asked me, “Has Sweets started making snowflakes?” Her daughter, who is seven looked up and said, “Mom, who’s making snowflakes?” “I think you will. Maybe tomorrow” she replied. “What for?” “A lot of schools are making snowflakes for other children, so that when they come to school it will look like a Winter wonderland. Isn’t that wonderful?” “Yes!” Her daughter clearly liked the idea. “Can we make snowflakes too Mom?” “Of course.” The teacher looked at me. I wanted to ask how she was. She beat me to the punch. “How is Sweets doing?” “I think she’s okay,” I said. “I asked her if she’d heard about what happened, which she had. I asked if she wanted to talk about it. She didn’t. I let her know that if she wants to, we can, but we don’t have to. She told me there was a moment of silence on Monday “which is what we always do when something bad happens.”” Sweets’ teacher chuckled, and added, “I think that’s a good approach. There’s no need to take her anywhere she’s not ready to go. All it will do is scare her.”

During the past week, I’ve been thinking about how a person is supposed to respond, how we’re supposed to live, after an event like this. There are obvious things. Gun control. Everywhere else in the world, when something like this has happened limiting access to guns has dramatically curtailed further incidents of gun related violence. This is not a Second Amendment issue. This is common sense. The politics of gun control may be difficult. The logic is clear.

We need to do more to support the Mental health of our citizens. Stories like this one are heartbreaking. Collectively, taking care of those who cannot take care of themselves, is a responsibility we share.

The most important thing we can do? That’s easy. It’s this: show up. Stress, anxiety and shock shut us down. They keep us from feeling comfortable walking across a department store where most days we are safe. It keeps parents from finding friendship with each other over time, in the places where they gather. The way I do, at Target, and my children’s schools.

As she disappeared from view I didn’t worry that Sweets wasn’t in my line of sight. She knows how to behave around strangers, and she’d checked to make sure she knew where to find me when she returned. Those gestures, and her simple walk, are small unconscious ways we all have of showing that violence doesn’t win. It’s a way we have of putting the evil that happened at Sandy Hook, in its place. During the past week, people have been bringing stuffed animals, candles, and flowers to makeshift memorials throughout Newtown, CT. These acts do the same thing. They convey our mourning, yes. They speak to the reality of our shared pain. Most important, they are a way of saying to the families of the victims: You are not alone. We are with you.

For me, one of the wonders of the presence of newborn children is the way babies re-orient a parent’s life. Everything a parent does, has the child’s well-being at the center. Nothing else is important. New parents know this, and feel the weight of responsibility, as they leave the hospital, or their birth center. The stakes are high, a new life is in your hands, and there’s no manual. Newborns and young children are often overwhelming. They eat at all hours. They sleep and wake when they want to. They pee and poop without asking if you have a diaper handy, or a change of clothing nearby. Sometimes, five minutes after they finish, they do it again. Still, most new parents learn to successfully shift their attention from what I want to do, to what the baby needs.

Last Friday, after dinner, my friend said, “I don’t think I can work on Christmas cards tonight.” I sighed in relief. I couldn’t think about bringing glad tidings. Not that night. Instead, we watched a movie with her nine year old daughter. I sat on one side of her child, my friend on the other. The movie, “Henry Poole Is Here” is a quirky tale of redemption. I needed something to redeem the day. As the DVD played, I realized I didn’t like the film. Neither did my friend. In the end, our sense of it wasn’t important. We looked to the child sitting in our midst. If she wanted to watch it, we would. If not, we’d find something else. We checked with her multiple times. Every time, she said that she wanted to keep watching. That’s what happened. That night, like many people, we were out of sorts. I was reeling. Without thinking we knew one thing: nothing was more important than meeting her needs.

A week later, that remains true. I think the way to think about what to do, how to respond, and how to live after Sandy Hook, must begin by thinking as differently as the parent of a newborn does. We need to re-orient our sense of what we want and need. We have to keep showing up, and live as if the needs of our children trump any of our own. We must do this, today, tomorrow and every day after, because they really do. Our children aren’t simply our future. They are our precious present. Nothing else matters.


Everything Happens. A Thanksgiving Day Reflection.

Sh*t happens. Everything happens for a reason. These are two popular phrases that many use, and few combine. When anyone tries, the outrage is reflexive. Disease? Disaster? Death? Happening for X reason? That’s language of blame. We’re sensitive to blame, and the way it reveals our refusal to own the result of our actions.

It’s much easier for us to say that good things happen for a reason. There’s no outrage. We accept the relationship between the terms, and happily extend them. We say, “everything” while we mean only “good” things. There’s no blame, so there’s less resistance. Some folks like to say that a good result was “meant to be.” Good fortune is then gifted by God, or the kindness of another. I suppose that can be true. Still, along the way, I think we miss that when we say things like this, we’re absolving ourselves of the good fortune which can also result from our actions. Instead we’re giving it to a someone else, or higher power who has a “plan.” I wonder, why are we so unwilling to accept that we have the ability to make good choices ourselves?

My Dad is in the hospital. Last week he had an emergency quadruple bypass. He’d been at a used book sale, and found himself slumping and without energy. My mom, from her corner of the room they were in, saw that he was supporting himself by holding on to a post. He was sweating. He didn’t know what was going on. “I couldn’t figure out what was happening” he said later. He’d been feeling a dull pain in his chest for weeks. We’ve learned since that his arteries were 90% clogged. I shook my head when he told us he was trying to “figure out what was happening.” Of course he was. It’s his, there’s-an-over-the-counter-medicine-for-this, way that he has of problem solving health issues. It’s a way that he doesn’t make good decisions. Choices. A person makes hundreds each day. Most of them don’t make any difference in our lives or that of others. It’s not something we think about because there isn’t any need to. It’s simply part of living.

At the book sale, a volunteer staff person saw my dad slumping, and asked him if he wanted a glass of water. He accepted the offer. My parents were grateful for the moment of kindness. I’m not sure if anyone tried to help them after that. Further kindness at the book sale is not part of the story they’re telling. At this point, additional kindnesses are as likely to be details hidden behind the larger moments leading to his surgery, as they are of something which did not happen. It can be a challenge to offer help. We don’t want to offend. We’re convinced that we don’t know how. We are afraid that we’ll do the wrong thing. We think things like it’s not really our business to get involved, because who knows what the real situation is… The way those questions play in our mind? They’re the dark side of the wide Libertarian streak we’ve embraced. It’s not just government we don’t trust. We don’t know how to trust each other, or ourselves. These same things also make it difficult to ask for help when we need it.

Last night a friend said, “Bypass? I went through that with my dad in January.” Another, “my dad had a new ticker installed five years ago.” And, “mine had this done ten years ago.” In the last week, I’ve been amazed at the sheer number of people who have joined in, saying “me, and us, too.” As a friend put it on Facebook, “It’s not so much that we ‘like’ this status, as we ‘understand.'” For me, the chorus of these messages is another reminder that while we have a terrible habit of thinking that no one understands what we’re going through, we all move through the same kinds of things in life. Often these events, are exactly the same.

After drinking some water, my parents returned home. The next day they called my sister, who lives a few short blocks away from them. She called their doctor, and made sure he would see them on Monday. Monday’s visit to their GP led to a return on Tuesday for tests with a cardiologist. That doctor drove them to the hospital in his own car. In retrospect that may not have been the best choice–an ambulance being able to provide more support–but in the moment it was a decision that spoke to the urgency the situation required. From my sister, to my parents doctors, here were good decisions. We make them, too.

Today is Thanksgiving. The family is dining today in the hospital cafeteria. I’m a little anxious about that. It’s different. It’s also something that people do every year. We won’t be alone. Not in this, either. Another friend said, “Thanksgiving in a hospital with a sick relative? Been there. Done that.” For a brief moment I thought of asking, “Yes, but, how was the stuffing?” Then I remembered the most obvious thing. This day isn’t about the what of the meal. The work of service by those preparing and providing the food, will still take place. It’s not about the where of the meal either. Home isn’t about walls and a roof. Home is where ever you happen to be, with people you love. Today is a day for being together. A family gathers, and give thanks. In this, a life where everything happens.

I Missed You So So Bad!

The rule is simple, and clear. I am allowed to sing, in the car. That’s it. Step outside of the vehicle and my lips better seal. Sweets negotiated that deal to protect herself from the embarrassment of public parental crooning. She knew just what she was doing, too. I’ll sing about anything at the drop of a hat.

Related minor rules include the following: Dad does not dance in public, nor skip. She treads lightly there. She’s seen my personal version of a Monty Python “Silly Walk”. I think she knows she’s better off. At home, I’ll dance to some of the songs on Glee, too (I worked on these simple steps for a while). As long as I stand behind her, I’m okay. Now you know the reason why we don’t watch “Dancing with the Stars” or “So You Think You Can Dance” in my house. It’s not that I think I can dance, it’s that I keep trying.

Every once in a while, an allowance is made. Tonight was one of those nights. I was permitted to indulge in various renditions of Carly Rae Jepsen’s number one hit “Call Me Maybe” for close to an hour. Yes! It wasn’t an early Father’s Day gift, no. I just couldn’t get the lyrics right. We must have listened to various versions of the song, twenty different times on YouTube. The Harvard Baseball Team lip-synced cover. The dubbed Obama spoof. Assorted lyrics-on-the-screen videos. I even tried using the Suzuki method! It didn’t matter. I’d play a section, pause, and botch the lyric. Sweets thought it was the funniest thing she’d ever seen. I haven’t seen her laugh that hard since she last watched the Mirror Scene in Duck Soup.

The first part of the song I got right, is the bridge where Jepsen sings:

Before you came into my life
I missed you so bad
I missed you so bad
I missed you so so bad!

I think the truth those words express about love, is perfect. As I sang the bridge, I was tickling Sweets. The words brought tears to my eyes. They capture my experience of having kids. When you’re welcoming a birth, and you feel a child’s first kick, it’s hard to deny that his/her presence in your life is filling a space you didn’t know existed. I think that’s what it’s like when a heart discovers true love.

Jepsen captures perfectly the sense true love gives that “I always needed you.” It’s not because I was lacking and the child, or lover completed me, no, not that. For me, the words aren’t those of adolescent pining. They belong to an adult heart, proclaiming the life-giving essence of true love. It’s the fundamental realization that the presence of this person in your life is helping you become more than you were, and more of who you already are.

Before your true loves come into your life, you have no idea life can be richer, or more real than it is. After they do, you can’t imagine living without them in it. If you have to? There’s sadness, and thanksgiving. They may be gone, but the richness they helped you discover, remains.

The next time you hear this song, why don’t you call them to mind, and join me in proclaiming this truth:

Before you came into my life
I missed you so bad
I missed you so bad
I missed you so so bad!