Sunday, June 17, 2012

Electronic Traces

Two weeks ago I received an email from my father. That wouldn't have been odd a few months back. But since my dad passed on two months ago this mail sent a chill through my spine. Obviously I knew he hadn't sent it. He couldn't. In fact there aren't going to be any more emails from my dad—those one-liners that always made me smile—the constant reminders that he was thinking of me. The arrival of that mail was yet another reminder that dad was no longer with me.

My father was ill; in fact, very ill. And since he'd been diagnosed, just one year earlier, I knew that nothing would ever be the same--that there would be no escape from the inevitable. Nevertheless, although his passing was imminent—it wasn't. We were prepared. Yet we weren't. And with Father's Day around the corner I find myself floundering. How can it be that he's gone when he was always here? I look around my office, in fact right here next to the computer, and he's everywhere. I have a wheel of pictures tracing our lives together from my childhood onward (a treasured souvenir from his office), and a picture of the two of us together at my second-born son's Bar Mitzvah celebration in Philadelphia. He's hugging me tight and smiling. The same pose--every time. When I click into HeyTell on my iPhone there's a partial conversation, a leftover from one of his treatment sessions at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. (He just loved all of those funky Apps. The more the merrier.) A month ago I worked up the courage to call his cell phone. I was desperate to hear his voice: "You've reached Don Goldberg…." The voice mail box has been reset. What a loss--another loss. There are so many that I've lost count.

Back to those messages from dad's iPad: since the first one arrived there have been others. Mom is sending me pictures of the friends and family she's spending time with during this especially raw period. Although it's just short of unbearable to see his name pop up in my inbox I dread the day she'll get around to changing the name on the account. There's some comfort in these small electronic traces of a life so enormous and significant. Now when they appear in my mailbox I smile. Dad's still with us.

I cannot begin to count how much my father gave me: the list includes infinite love, affection, guidance, admiration, advice, respect and friendship—the curly hair, the eyebrows, the dimples. He knew exactly how to make me feel good about myself in any given situation. He showed infinite patience when teaching me how to tie my shoes, read a clock, ride a bike and yes, drive. I know I'm not alone in feeling that he was the best—absolutely the best. My brother had hats with this logo made, way back when, to celebrate his 60th birthday. How deserving. Those lucky enough to have received his attention, affection, warmth, advice and love, were truly blessed.

The painful reality is that while my dad was always, and I mean always, there for me, he no longer is. And I have no concept of how my life will be without him. I know that it will never be the same. The immeasurable comfort of knowing that he was on my side, albeit across the world, a feeling which cushioned my every move, is gone. The carpet has been pulled out from beneath my feet. I know that I can stand on my own—that's a big part of what both of my parents gave me—but it's not something I am entirely eager to do.

Post-mortem emails are only the tip of the iceberg. My father has left traces absolutely everywhere. He's with me when I shuttle my children from one place to another, accompanying me on each and every carpool as he did from the time I was small. He's with me when I work on a crossword puzzle, write an article, or read the newspaper. He's with me when I go to the hardware store, the liquor store and the garden store. He's with me when I wipe down one of my ill children's foreheads, open a good spy novel and watch a border-line violent HBO series or a tennis match. He's there ordering a huge plate of pasta—only spaghetti and only with tomato-based sauce. He's there for dessert: a bowl of chocolate chip mint ice cream, strawberry rhubarb, lemon meringue or key lime pie. He's with me when I cheer on the Eagles or the Phillies. He's there by the Weber pot, in front of a roaring fire, changing the flat tire of my bicycle. He's camped out in the living room or the sun room with a briefcase full of papers at his feet.

My world is inundated with his presence. He's tending his garden on Andorra Road, digging a hole for a post at the beach, watering a plant at 1830. He's sitting in a booth at Madrays, ordering a draft beer in his personal mug at McNally's, enjoying a muffin and a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice at the Commissary. He's having breakfast at Park, a drink at Lacroix, dinner at Marathon Grill. He's in his office, peeking out from behind a stack of briefs, framed by hundreds of post-its and lifetime memories. He's in the Square walking the dog and waiting for me to finish my run. He's all over the beach house—his beloved Jersey shore, watching those waves come in. He's standing on the tennis court here in Caesarea, arm raised in a salute as I drive by, with his friends at the club in Loveladies, legs firmly planted, tennis arm extended either far to the right or far to the left. Wherever the shot, he'll get there. He's all over the world; peeking into the mouth of Vesuvius with me, biking along a road in Bordeaux, lying in the next bed attached to matching oxygen tanks in Cuzco. He's all of Philadelphia—from Euclid Avenue to Fairmount Park, from Panama Street to Andorra Road and back to Rittenhouse Square. He's City Hall—he's Willie Penn.

And then there are the arrivals and departures—especially difficult to bear. He's pulling up to my bunk at camp, ready to take me home after a long summer away. He's meeting me at the airport; I spot his tall profile as I run down the terminal ramp with my luggage, anticipating his firm and all-encompassing hug. He's waiting for me to pull up in my car, seated on his bench on the front deck in Loveladies. He's helping me pack my bags, my cartons, the car, but he can never say goodbye. A day or two before any departure he has a hand poised in front of his stomach with fingers raised: 3 or 4 finger agita. He's anxious. I'm leaving. I'm right there with him. I share his dislike for goodbyes. He carefully avoids that final hug, saying goodbye on the phone as mom takes me to the airport, or better yet, speaking with me once I've safely landed. My father could never have anticipated the depth of the agita I've experienced over our final goodbye. And following suit, he never really said goodbye. He didn't need to; it was implicit. And instead our final moments were blessed with abundant love and a tight embrace—precisely mirroring our long life together.

Although I knew this time would come, it's not something I can accept with ease. My father was simply too important, too significant, too wonderful and too irreplaceable. I have, for certain, been the luckiest daughter in the world. I take some comfort from the fact that my dad knew that I felt that way. He lived a beautiful life--straight and true, full of love and compassion—and I am certain that he knew just how much he was treasured. And yes, he knew that I would take his loss hard. Accordingly, for him, specifically for him, I try to take strength from the intensity of his presence which accompanies me throughout the day, and sometimes into the night.

I know the importance of counting one's blessings. And there have been many, foremost among which is having had almost fifty years with the larger than life man who was my father and will always be my father—a man who will forever serve as an example of how good a father can be. I miss you desperately Daddy.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Youth is fleeting...or rather, fleeing?

Youth is fleeting. Who said that? (Longfellow, de Montaigne, Ecclesiastes??)  And I wonder how old they were when they wrote it. Probably somewhere near my age. Well, this past week I discovered that they were right. My boys were scheduled to compete in an aquathlon; a run-swim-run kind of deal. I decided, heck, I like to swim and if I have to give up another Saturday to their activities I might as well participate. I registered the three of us.
A few days passed. I almost forgot about it. And the, everything changed. First of all, a nasty winter storm came through, something we're actually getting used to here in Israel this year, and it was forecast to be nothing less than FREEZING on Saturday. Now it was one thing to start out a run in 9 degrees, but what was it going to be like getting out of the pool soaking wet and continuing on to the second run! Brrrrr. It was clear that this wasn't for me. I have not one big of polar bear in me. Next piece of foreboding news: the adult category was going to be combined with the Elite Youth category; yep, the strapping 16-19 year olds. There simply weren't enough adults to justify splitting the start times. Uh-oh… I was actually going to start out with my boys. Well, that was simply comical. Obviously I wouldn't be able to even get close to their pace. The consolation would be that there would be plenty of room in the pool by the time I got there.  And it turned out, that was no joke.

A few minutes before the start I shed my sweatshirt. The shivering started. Soon enough I was shaking like a leaf. Coach Uri was explaining the rules. I didn't care. Let's just get this thing started. I was turning blue. Blessedly it came: On your mark, get set, GO! The race started. And what do you know, within less than five seconds I was virtually alone. I turned around seeking some consolation. There it was, I spotted a few last stragglers behind me. I couldn't believe it. And I was running fast!!! In fact too fast! This was no recognized zone and my differed sharply from what my coach had recommended a few days before.

In any case, I began to feel like a train wreck: totally out of control. I'd had no previous delusions of keeping up any kind of pace with the Elite Youth but hey, just how humiliating was this!!!  It made me appreciate that comfortable "Women's start" that I've gotten used to at most other competitions. To add to my misery I began to panic: how was I ever going to know where to go? I'd never done it alone before!!

At the turn loop I saw Daniel run by, then Noah. What could they possibly be thinking? Well they were happy enough to share that information with me in the car on the way home, accompanied by quite a bit of pantomime: "How come mommy runs with her arms crooked up high in the air?" "Here comes mommy with her cane!" Lovely.

In any case, off went the Elite Youth and there I was plodding along, fast enough to realize that I was developing a nasty case of shin splints. And then the worst thing happened: I sensed that I was going uphill. Not only that, I realized that this hill was getting steeper and snaked sharply upward as it led me back to the pool. Who said anything about an incline? This definitely wasn't mentioned in the race flyer.  

My God…it was a nightmare. But I did it...I finished the first run and headed to the pool. I strolled my way down the stairs and into the pool area. It was super slippery and since I was one of the last competitors it didn't really seem to matter! I jumped in. BLAZES!!! The water was simply burning. How was I supposed to swim in boiling water? It turns out later that it wasn't boiling, that the difference in temperature between my skin, frozen from being exposed to the wintry elements outdoors during the run, and the 27 degree water, was just enormous enough to give the "impression" of jumping into a cauldron of soup.  Shades of Macbeth flashed before me; a kind of ultimate punishment to top those I'd already inflicted on myself that morning.

It didn't matter. I couldn't swim. Here we were at my favorite part and I could barely move my legs. The shin splits I'd developed during my climb of Everest had left me with horrific pains. The only plus was that, as I'd figured out beforehand, I had plenty of room. Almost everyone else was ahead of me. But still, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get my legs to kick. They hurt that much. About 300meters into the 800 meter swim I started to recover and started to move. I even managed to catch up to those runners who'd left me alone on the road during the first run.  Finally catching my breath I was able to assess the bitter facts about this competition: most of the other adult competitors were runners who happened to swim a little. It's too bad I couldn't capitalize on my own talents in the pool; too bad I couldn't get up to speed. But the fact remained—I spent most of the swim trying to recover from the run. While it wasn't my worst swim ever it wasn't nearly my best.

Oh well. I pulled myself out of the pool; no easy feat at the Wingate Institute. The pool is a lovely Olympic 50meters but the walls are incredibly high. I actually had to use the ladder. Yep, here comes the old lady!!! I made my way out, put my sneakers on and braced for the cold. WHOA!!! No amount of preparation could have prepared me for just whipped through me. The only thing that made me forget it was hearing the announcer announce the names of the Elite Youth who had already finished. Yes, finished. They were already coming in and I still had that lonely run ahead of me….lonely, and, lest we forget, freezing!

So there I was…chugging along, knowing that most of the field had already finished—finding almost every step unbearable and dreading the mountainous finish that I now knew lay before me.

Well, suffice it to say that I did it. I finished. I finished even though absolutely every second was more than I could bear. I crossed the finish line and that was it. I was officially put out of my misery. Although I'd been cheered along the way by a few friends and acquaintances, all incredibly helpful, and quite a few strangers in awe of, or alternatively horrified by, the struggling old lady, my children were nowhere to be found. They'd finished a clean 9 minutes or so before me and, after all, who really cares about mom? Adding insult to injury, a full five minutes after I crossed the finish line the announcer announced, "the four last contestants are…."and I heard my name. 

Enough said. I probably won't be doing that kind of race again. It wasn't even slightly satisfying. Maybe if they actually decide on reasonable categories and provide a few reasonable contestants I'll give it another chance but being shoved into the 40-59 category isn't for me! I've learned my lesson: aquathlons are for runners, not swimmers. I had it wrong. And no, I don't need to endure another "start" with the Elite Youth because yes, youth is fleeting…and this youth was simply flee-ing…and I didn't enjoy being left behind to consider where my own youth had gone; not to mention stuck with a nasty case of shin splints. Lessons learned. Not a bad thing in the end.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

History: Vacuum-packed

My husband is a neat freak. Actually, that doesn't even begin to describe it. His need for order seems to surpass that for human conversation, physical warmth…you name it. Now, I'm sure he'll take issue with this (and I'll definitely hear about it later) but the facts speak for themselves. We actually moved from one house to another because he couldn't stand tripping over the toys parked by the front door. Oh, and what a surprise it was to discover that adding 100 sq. meters didn't actually dispense with those toys, it just relocated them a few meters to the right--out of immediate target range.

I've lived with my fair share of "neat freaks," not to name names; all of them teetering somewhere on the border of, gulp, "obsessive compulsive." One lines up pencils and polishes tables, another just can't stand to see "stuff" scattered around the various surfaces of the house. For the record, I actually think that those "surfaces" shout: "bring me stuff"—I mean, what else are they meant for? How ironic that my brother, who constantly needled me to "pick up" during those summers we shared a house, eventually married a woman who is, shall we say, slightly less focused on order. My sister in law proudly claims that she "broke" him. I love that. But I don't know how she did it. Maybe he just loves her that much. I'm envious—despite having quite a lot of "love" in my house, I've been completely unable to "break" my spouse.

The proof of actual OCD lies in its manifestation further down the genetic line. There is simply no neater space in my house than my daughter's room. It's so tidy that any "intruders," items I find elsewhere and haphazardly return to her shelves (folded laundry, a school notebook, or an Ipod) seemingly call out in distress: "We don't belong!" Until she has actually logged each item into its precise location, everything seems out of place. Furthermore, anyone actually caught putting something, for example, on her desk, risks waking the wrath of Khan.

There are definitely benefits to living with what could be called "freaks of nature;" the obvious one being that things are usually "in place" and can, accordingly, be found. And to be sure, there is nothing more stomach-turning than a glance into one of my boys' rooms. Being a "neat freak" is not necessarily a bad thing. However, in the long run, it's probably a good thing that my daughter's the only one, of the three, to have received that "tidy" chromosome. After all, I've seen its ugly side. Indeed, the panic that accompanies disorder, for this obviously "disadvantaged" population, can be frightening to witness. 

In order to truly understand what I definitely consider a "disorder," I need to describe the various clothes' closets in our house. My husband's, not surprisingly, boasts neat piles of carefully folded shirts and pants complete with ironed pleats and a uniform profile. Not one obedient soldier is out of place. My sons', on the other hand, represent something closer to M*A*S*H; a result of their nasty tendency to just "pull out" whatever they need (GASP!!) leaving the neighboring items hanging at all angles, for the most part unfolded and in some cases (Oh No!) on the floor!!! I already described my daughter's inclination so one can imagine which closet hers most closely resembles. Mine? My closet is somewhere in the middle. Yep--stuck in the middle as always.

One of my housekeeper's primary duties, determined by my husband, is to "straighten" the closets. What does that mean? That means that she spends a good portion of each week whipping each little "soldier" into order and neatly tucking "him" back into "his" assigned location! Can you imagine? So much to clean and sweep and mop and wipe and scrub and she's wasting valuable energy lining up the folded corners of our gym shorts and button-down shirts! I don't think I have to complete the description of this insanity with a medical diagnosis. The facts speak for themselves. 

Despite this frightening situation, I think I've come a long way in increasing my husband's tolerance for "organized mess" and I definitely feel that we've reached some kind of negotiated middle ground. At least, I thought I'd made progress. An incident a few weeks back suggests otherwise. Imagine a sunny Saturday morning. I'm tucked comfortably back into pajamas after returning from a hard morning ride, drinking a cup of coffee and reading the news on line. The children are each in their individual caves engaging with whatever virtual world lies beyond their screen of choice. In swoops my husband with a pile of newly-purchased vacuum-packed storage bags and a smile similar to that of the Cheshire Cat—and equally as conniving!

For those not in the know, these bags are outfitted with a large plastic nozzle. The idea is to stuff them with clothes, attach a vacuum and then suck out all of the air. The items inside are shrunken to a fraction of their former size and occupy far less space than if, for example, allowed to sit neatly folded on a shelf. These bags are an excellent solution for those who lack proper storage space. If I still lived in a studio in Manhattan I could understand their role in my life. As it is, lucky enough to have a huge storage room downstairs, one of the fringe benefits of having moved to that bigger house, their purpose is much less obvious. In truth of fact, I think they're basically one more means by which my husband can try to assume complete control of what he obviously feels to be an untenable amount of disorder.

Within one afternoon he literally took everything we could define as "out of use but too emotionally valuable to pitch" as well as "summer clothes" and squeezed them into a surprisingly small number of these bags…sucking the air out of each and every one. At some point during this project the hamster went missing. I panicked. Maybe in his frenzy to compress, my husband had sucked him in as well. I imagined him lost within one of these wrinkled bags--gasping for air. I frantically started to sort through the unbelievably small wrinkly plastic bags (just how many pounds of clothes were crammed into each one??) and then paused. It was so quiet. Everyone was home but there was no noise whatsoever. Where were the kids? How come I couldn't hear them? Was it possible? Had my husband been so hell-bent on sucking up and shrinking everything in sight that he hadn't bothered to discriminate between animate and inanimate? Was it even possible to vacuum our three kids into these bags?

Although he obviously would have done no such thing I acknowledged the appeal of the idea. What a tidy solution to an untidy hitch! These bags could offer a way to finally manage the physical and emotional mess entailed in raising three kids!

Abandoning this fantasy, I started thinking about all of this sucking and stowing. Was life meant to be so easily packaged and controlled? By suffocating one's memories can we effectively tuck away the past? I find the present state of our storage room to be nothing less than depressing. These bags, or rather, "agents of order," have wrecked total havoc with what used to be a clammy space filled with my history: a little bit of Brown University, a race or two, high school youth group, a ski trip to Vermont, winters in Michigan. All of this was still documented in the t-shirts, scarves, gloves and jackets which I absolutely refused to throw out or give away. But where one glance inside the storage room used to reveal an assortment of scrumptious colors and textures, a visual history of my life say, post 1980, it had now become a conglomeration of tortured-looking plastic packs, yearning to be freed; or, at minimum, to breathe.

Maybe it's not that important to keep our sails trim, to pick up the pieces, to tidy the rough edges. I appreciated comedian Jonathan Ames' recent article on what he so cleverly called "kipple".  Kipple is basically everything that gets left behind: bottle tops, receipts from the post office, old school tests, a random photograph from a summer long past, a key whose lock can't be identified, a child's art project, a sock whose match is missing in action. While my mess doesn't come anywhere close to the accumulation of detritus described so hysterically by Ames, it is precisely this "kipple" which clutters my house's surfaces and drives my husband crazy. Maybe it's time to raise a protest of the sort being held in Wall Street and downtown Tel Aviv; a kind of "Take back the right to Accumulate" demonstration. After all, a life of skirting around the edges of these neat freaks has left me firmly convinced that a little clutter indicates a lot of character. As Anna Nalick sings, just "Breathe."

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Triathlon Eilat 2011 or "Gone with the Wind"

Being both a competitor and a mother isn't easy. The days prior to the annual competition in Eilat were filled with making sure that everything was ready for my boys: their bikes, gear, their emotional state-of-mind! I wanted things to go as smoothly as possible. Yes, I prepared my own things, made sure to drink water, thought a bit about the race; but that was secondary. Rami and I packed the car. Three bikes, three kids. A full load. So thankful he was driving. He's convinced his presence on these trips is superfluous. If he only knew! Couldn't do it without that other calm adult in my corner! The whole trip down south was occupied by the thought of whether or not we'd get there in time for the boys' practice, not mine. It's impossible to disconnect from being a mom.

Thursday late afternoon, all is set. Daniel calls in tears. He has brought two left shoes with him. He won't be able to wear his favorite competition shoes. I breathe a sigh of relief. When I heard his cracked voice I thought something had happened to him. It was okay. It's just equipment. And everyone knows that equipment doesn't make the athlete! Or at least, that's what we tell ourselves!

Thursday night, Daniel fills up his tire: poof! The valve breaks. He's a mess. This is an important competition for him and he's very tense. We change the tire. Or rather, his big brother Noah does it. Noah is relaxed this time around. It's his seventh time in Eilat. These boys are "old hat" at this business. I decide not to touch my tires. If they were good enough a few days earlier at my Tuesday morning practice, they were good enough for another 20km. 

Friday morning. I wake up the boys and send them off. I have a few minutes on my own. Nice. Quiet. I go down to check in at the bike station. Laugh with my friends. I have plenty of time and it's not even cold! What a break!

Over to the beach. Daniel has gotten out of the water. I wrap him up. I wouldn't dare get into the water. Brrrrrrrrrrrr. I don't see Noah at all. In fact I NEVER saw him except for the one split second when he emerged from his swim. After years of watching my boys' entire races, cheering them on, having butterflies in my stomach over their competitions, all I got was one split second.

Daniel's first. Great start out of the water. I breathe a sigh of relief…Noah out of the water. Great…I’m next. Black out. To the water's edge and jump. Don't remember too much about the swim except being focused on finding the exit. Last year I targeted between Melech Shlomo and Royal Beach, leading a whole group of women astray! I wasn't going to let that happen again. I did notice that the water wasn't as cold as I'd expected and that was a GREAT thing. The swim was fine. I love swimming. I reminded myself that as I pushed forward. I saved a bit of energy with my legs. Thinking about what lay ahead. Out of the water…heard Ziv and Udi cheer me on as I headed up the path. I smiled.

On to the bike. I climbed the hill out of the station. I heard the names of friends of Daniel finishing. Where was he? He'd had such a great start. He must have already finished. Okay, focus!!! The bike. The wind. The fact is that I was so relieved that they'd cut back to 20km from the 26km we did last year that it just didn't matter. It was a little tense on the course. I tried not to let too many people pass me. I fought. I pushed myself. I looked for Noah. No sign of him so I assumed he'd been in that pelaton speeding down the hill on my way in. I smiled as I saw Guy and Shai coming the other way. Great company! And then: there was Arella! And then the turnaround. I breathed a sigh of relief. I was almost home! Time to fly. Gears didn't work at the bottom range. SHOOT!!! I stayed somewhere in the middle of the higher range and took the opportunity to fuel up on water. I'm going fast enough. It will be okay. Flew over the speed bump by the entrance to Eilat! Oh no! Landed. Phew! Headed back into town. Menachem was there alone on the side of the road, cheering me on! There is no way to explain JUST HOW IMPORTANT that encouragement is! Just when you're ready to throw in the towel…Go Caroline!!! It's like taking a sip of an energy drink!!!

I pulled into the station. On to the run. Made that one turn in front of the stands and felt as though someone had put up a wall. The wind was stiff in my face. I couldn't believe it. Hadn't I done enough? What was this? I felt broken but knew that I had to finish. I also knew that I had a good position because I hadn't seen too many women ahead of me. It was going well. I wasn't going to give up now.

NITRO-ites were all over that first corner. How wonderful was that! But I really wanted one of them to jump in and just do it for me! The run was difficult.  It wasn't as hot as I'd expected but my pace wasn't where I wanted it to be. I should be faster.  Guy was already coming back. LUCKY Guy! I wanted to be in his shoes. Okay, I'd wait for the turnaround. The wind was wild, sometimes in my face, sometimes coming from the side. When I spit I had absolutely no idea where it was going to hit!

I approached the turn and saw Shai!! Yeah!!! Shai! I continued on. I had cramping pain throughout my ribs. My torso was so tight. Forget aerobic fitness, leg muscles. None of that mattered. How was I going to move through the pain coursing through my ribcage? And then: There was Tal. Come on Tal. Pass me! Tal runs like the wind. The next section of the run I simply waited for her to overtake me. Jennifer. Zebale. Miki. We're all here. We're all together. Finally, Tal passed me on the left. That was good. Now I knew I was almost finished. Back at the Nitro corner. Nir. Tsaf. So many others! I took water, but drinking at this point made me nauseous. COME ON Caroline: 500 meters! 

I didn't know what the heck was going on between my ribs. Nir tells me there are muscles  and tendons there…never really knew they existed until Friday morning and I could have lived without that knowledge. I came down that stretch looking forward and back. Last year I was elbowed out by a woman my age, one elbow separated our places. I wasn't going to let that happen again! No one around. I was alone. Turned the corner, Rami yelling to me: GO! Crossed the line. Shai welcomed me….the ribs…unbearable! I pulled it together. Shai stayed with me. I'd done it….and yes, I knew I'd done well and that maybe, just maybe, while tipping the top of the age category at an ancient 49, I might just have made podium!

It was great. And worth it. WHAT A FEELING! Daniel met me on the other side of the stands. He'd had a cramp. His race, which had started out so well, had ended badly…Not badly in terms of the whole age group, but badly for him personally; a real disappointment. He cried on my shoulder. How painful was that. I forgot about my ribs. Rami came over. I asked about Noah. He'd had the race of his life, finishing far ahead of his expectations. What a mixture of results and emotions.

I walked Daniel back to the hotel, hearing him tell me how again, like at Emek HaYarden, his leg had cramped so badly that he'd had to stop and work it out. When you hope to be on top you can't take those extra two minutes…I passed some of my friends from the Sprint, Arella, Jennifer, Zebale. What could I have done without them? Doing the Sherox Triathlon alone during the summer didn't compare. I was surrounded by support: My husband, my children, my teammates, my coaches, my friends. How lucky was I?

Later on I checked the results: WOW! I'd showed those youngsters something!!! Just wait until next year!!!
I'll be back!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


That’s not a typo. The title for this blog really is “K”. “K” stands for just how many shortcuts we take in 2011. “K” is what I received on my cell phone, continually, this summer. “K” is short for OK, which is short for O.K., which is short for that obviously too-long-to-deal-with word: okay.

The first time I received a “letter” as an answer on my phone I thought it was a mistake. The friend that sent this message must have let it go too soon—not finishing whatever it was that she wanted to say. But then I received the same message from another friend. And soon enough I realized that “K” has become an acceptable form of confirmation.

The ever apparent, inverse relationship between rapid communication and meaningful conversation is troublesome. In an ironic fashion modern technology has enabled the streamlining of life to the point where a one word, or even--dare I say it--"one letter," exchange, can count as a full-blown conversation. I discovered this phenomenon this past summer when I received my son's cell phone bill. There were an inordinate number of text messages. The Verizon customer service operator explained that he was sending almost one hundred a day. 100! I was amazed that Noah had that much to say considering that I’m lucky to have a handful of words come my way. When I asked him about this apparently astounding "gift of gab" he explained that most of his texts were only one word.

That's it. We've managed to whittle down the English language to the point where one word--and in some cases, one letter-- counts as a bona fide response; a full-fledged side of a conversation.

I’m having difficulty swallowing this new indicator of how far we’re willing to go to hurry things along—keep things moving—get on with it. How much more quickly do we want life to go?  As it is, things speed along whether we like it or not. Although as a teenager I was champing at the bit, eager to move on—right now I’d just as soon slam on the brakes. Modern technology is bound and determined to keep things moving at an ever-increasing pace. Where once this primarily affected transportation, helping us get places faster--in more efficient ways; now it's mostly about communication.  Although I'll never be able to stem this particular tide, I don't have to like it. Maybe it's time to pause and question whether this is a good thing and whether it's something that we need to buy into and swallow whole.

New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Runni recently addressed another one of the pitfalls of the explosion in technological development; explaining that the existence of multiple means of communication has actually complicated our lives, maybe even slowing them down, by demanding that we know something that should be obvious: "how" people want to be reached.  In short, since personal communication preferences can determine accessibility, we need to know each individual's preferences in order to actually contact them; to know whether they check their answering service or prefer incessant redials, prefer text messages, emails or messages posted directly to their social network. Ironically, the exhausting effort required to negotiate how to best reach another party in some cases can actually deter communication! For example, by the time I recall which friend prefers to be contacted via text, which through the phone and which through email I have little desire to actually bother with the conversation!! Sometimes I just swallow whatever I wanted to say and move on—figuring that one less comment or update won't make a difference and simply exhausted by the thought of the whole process!

Modern technological development has somehow managed to complicate what should be the simplest of tasks. Whatever happened to the basic concept: “Reach out and touch someone"? Does anyone even remember that ad? Looking for a creative way to soften the image of AT & T, emphasizing the phone company’s indispensable role in everyday American life, Ayer Advertising agency came up with that now famous tagline in 1979. At the time, no one could imagine life without Ma Bell. How amazing in light of the fact that since then, many other communication giants have risen and fallen (think Sprint) and the all-powerful home telephone, so impressively invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, has lost its allure. In my house, for example, absolutely no one answers the phone. It rings, and rings and rings--and not one of my children move. They're all aware that if someone really wanted to contact them they would have already sent them a message through the computer or via their cell phone. How different from my youth, when I raced to the phone at the first ring, hoping it would be for me! 

The multiplication of the means by which we communicate with others, most of them requiring neither physical contact, neither full sentences nor an actual voice, has virtually killed human communication—that formerly intrinsic part of existence! It is definitely responsible for our general disinterest in actually "speaking" with someone. After all, electronic forms of communication take so much less energy and guarantee us time to formulate an appropriate reply! But I for one don't think we should be so quick as to call this progress. In fact, the repercussions of the degradation of communication caused by these so-called "developments," for this next generation (to which I've contributed three young souls) are frightening. I don’t relish the idea of their living in a world where one letter stands for a response. In fact, I’ve seen the rendition of this abbreviated form of written communication in their actual, “in person,” conversations and it goes beyond disheartening—all the way to depressing.

Maybe it's time for a wakeup call. Take a look at one of those original AT & T ads. Then, in honor of the Jewish New Year, reassess who matters most, reach out and touch them.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Diary entry: Sherox Triathlon Competition Philadelphia 2011

I have to admit that this year I was a lot less apprehensive about this Philadelphia triathlon event but at the same time, quite ambivalent about it. As the date approached I really didn’t feel like doing it. I’ve worked out very hard all summer and I knew that I was in good enough shape to do it but I didn’t feel like getting worked up….and that’s what always happens before competitions. I get major butterflies and my stomach is a mess and I worry worry worry that something will go wrong.

But crossing the finish line is such an incredible feeling that the struggle is always justified.  The “why?” that I said to myself as I started the run, pretty exhausted, just faded away as I accepted my medal and slowed to a stop at the finish.

The swim: The Schuylkill River is a city river. Its primary use is by rowers. My mother is a rower. Rowers get in these skinny skinny boats called sculls and go backwards! If you've never seen it done check it out, it’s an amazingly challenging sport. In any case no one actually swims in this river and I don’t want to write about the kind of things found in there. (I’ll gross you out somewhere later in this retelling).  The water is pretty murky. You can’t see your arms as you go. You can’t see anything.  They put the competitors in the water in waves. It’s an incredibly comfortable way to start. Very dignified compared with that massive rush at the water’s edge I know from home. Approximately 60 people to a wave. You start treading water near an imaginary line between two orange floats. There is nothing to hold on to. Each wave has a different colored cap so as you swim along you know  you’re doing well when you've caught up to other colors. After all, they started a full 4 minutes earlier. Now in the USA I've noticed that while running is REALLY strong, swimming is not. There are amazing swimmers out there…and I saw them in action close up in my age group start, but there are many just trying to get through it. I actually passed people hanging out in the water, and some that were doing backstroke; tons doing breast.

But it was in the water that I figured out exactly who I had to contend with. I was in a 48-54 age group start. And it was in the water that I learned a major lesson in Philadelphia. The toughest women out there are the 50+ group. In fact those were basically the only ones that passed me!! The 30 somethings were always on the side. I could take them easily…But those skinny, muscle-ly 50 somethings were fierce!!!!

The swim started too fast. Some of those women just leaped out! I went with them and soon enough I found I couldn't breathe. That DOES NOT HAPPEN to me and I couldn't believe it. And frankly, with so many people in the water, not only from all those “wave starts” but also the lifesaving crew checking that no one is in trouble (someone died there last summer in a Triathlon),  it’s kind of freaky not to be able to breathe. I figured I must have pushed too hard. I calmed myself and slowed my pace.  Meanwhile the vapors off the surface of the water and that bit of water washing into my mouth with every breath were just foul. We are so spoiled in the Mediterranean!! I couldn't wait to finish. Now that is REALLY not like me. I love to swim. I wait for the swim. I never want it to end. I don’t want to do anything but swim. But here I was DYING to get out of the water. For me that set a weird tone for the whole race. I started thinking, if I’m really not enjoying this, what’s left? Next up I’d have to get on that darn bike! I might as well try to enjoy this! I focused. I swam strong. Nice long strokes to get through the current which was pretty strong. It was only 600 meters. They keep it short because the swim is what keeps people from participating; the more the merrier for women’s events. I reached the end of the murky water and here they pull you out because there is nothing to hang on to…I was hoisted up and off I went.

The bike: The bike section was really long: 25 km. Of course, that doesn’t compare with Eilat which I thought would never end. I kept that in mind!! But this course is hilly. It includes a challenging bridge up to the Strawberry Mansion area and then a climb through the mansion area. Of course all that climbing is rewarded buy some pretty fun down hills! Anyway, this was the opportunity I’d been waiting for to use my new technique. I climbed those hills standing like a 14 year old thanks to my Coach! Thanks Nir! I was still a bit wobbly (practice makes perfect), and I’m never going to be great at it because my balance simply isn’t terrific (I blame it on poor eyesight) but I knew he would be very proud of me. The course is two loops and after the first loop you can really anticipate those hills. Unlike most races, I also pushed through the down hills. As I mentioned before, I usually did the passing. I felt good. I felt strong. There were two categories of those passing me. One was those riding absolutely amazing bicycles. While I’m happy to have my mom’s old Cannondale, a mid 90s relic with three plates at the crank, it does not compare to the machines on the road. I actually thought an airplane was passing me at one point. Along came someone with those fancy wheels and a bullet (or sperm shaped) helmet. Scary!!! Anyway the second category was the 50+ group. As I mentioned above, I simply COULD NOT COMPETE with them. [Well, we’ll see next year!!!]. Phew!!

The course was littered with people with flat tires. It had poured the day before and also all night until about 5am! There were sticks and stones everywhere. I was incredibly careful. I really didn't feel like ending my race that way.  Plus I think this is where my hearty tires came in handy!! 

On to the run: Again, “Why am I doing this?” Did I forget to mention that although the temperature was in the mid 70s, very comfortable, the humidity was 95 percent? All of my body parts were simply stuck together. GROSS! The good thing was that there was a cloud cover the entire race. NO SUN! How different races are without that sun beating down!!! The run is a straight shot out to the Art Museum and back.  It’s relatively flat but it is never ending. I started out comfortably and said, “Okay. I have to make a decision here…have a dull run like Herzliya and be disappointed in myself or actually go for it.” I started to quicken my pace just a bit. For the record, I was DEAD TIRED. I kept a close eye on my heart beat and decided on a target number. The woman who completed the bike section and moved on to the run was a great runner. She jumped out ahead of me and I decided that I was going to stick with her. AND I DID! I had her in sight the entire way. She had a beautiful runner’s gait. I was so envious.  But I kept her in sight during the whole run and unbelievably, 500 meters from the finish, I realized that I actually could go a bit faster. I passed her!! And without sprinting!! (I learned a painful lesson about sprinting at the finish of the Tel Aviv Night race of 2009).

Finish line 2011: I did it! It was over. And yes, I knew, right there, that I’d do it again next year. Lessons of the day: 1. I’m strong--very strong. Thanks to Nir for torturing me several times a week. 2. It’s a lot more fun to do this with my friends. I was pretty lonely before and during the race. Not only did I not know anyone on the trail but no one cheered me from the sides except the race officials who were actually GREAT and numerous. 3. Rami deserves major thanks. Not only for waking up at 5am but also for cheering me at every opportunity. Next time he promises to memorize my swim cap color so that he knows when to expect me from the water! With 1700 participants (there was a TRI and a Duathlon) it was crowded and difficult to figure out who was who as we emerged from the water. 4. Women 50+ should not be messed with. They are tough as nails. 5. I love doing this despite the butterflies.

The results: I placed 14 out of 114 in my age category 45-49 (I’m the oldie). Overall 98/940. Last year I was 22nd. I’m more than satisfied!!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Education, Professional Success, and/or the Liberal Arts

About a month ago, sick of seeing it continually lambasted within the press, I decided to put in my two cents on the value of a liberal arts education. Since then the subject has popped up in at least three separate conversations, convincing me of its relevance to just about any dialogue and delaying the publication of this particular blog entry.

What's the point of a liberal arts education? With unemployment high in the US, and job opportunities slim-to-none, it’s definitely legitimate to debate the value of non-professional higher education. The main issue, and definitely not a new one, is whether a student majoring in, say, Anthropology or English, will ever be able to find a job. Over a year ago an article in USA Today, citing a study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, stated that the US economy was in serious danger due to a growing mismatch between the skills needed for jobs being created and the educational backgrounds (or lack thereof) of would-be workers. This same study was republished in last weekend’s (24 July 2011) New York Times Education section. Apparently we’re all quite interested in just how unprepared our children might be for “real life” and how we might better “direct” them if we want to remedy this situation.

Compounding the problematic discord between chosen programs of study and future job success is the continual insinuation that colleges are not adequately preparing their graduates for the "afterlife." A recent article in outlined the pitfalls for those with a liberal arts degree (too esoteric, disconnected, irrelevant, and impractical) while simultaneously supporting its intrinsic value; most significantly suggesting that universities should be taking a more active role in the future of their graduates. In response to these discouraging studies and the bashing of the liberal arts, multiple businesses (ironically under the direction of liberal arts graduates--so they have in fact found some way to make a living), specifically aimed at easing the way for these graduates, have cropped up throughout the country.

The issue of marketability, in reference to academic studies, cannot be ignored. In fact, the direct relationship between college major and median earnings and the growing attraction of the more “practical” fields of study, such as that recently published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, indicates the urgency of this issue. Engineering, for example, has taken over as the most popular concentration nation-wide, with English (just an example) way down the list. The underlying implication of such data is that a liberal arts education, at the astronomical price of $200,000, might, just possibly, be an official waste of one's time (and money)--leading nowhere.

What all of these studies fail to address and identify is the true significance of the liberal arts education. The original concept of liberal arts study was based on the study of the seven liberal arts by ancient Greeks: grammar, dialectic or logic, rhetoric, music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. The goal of this curriculum was to impart general knowledge which would develop the student’s rational thought processes and intellectual capabilities. Carefully excluded were all studies that had anything to do with professionalvocational or technical preparation. According to much contemporary commentary it is this latter omission, the provision of no specific instruction, which leaves college graduates inadequately prepared for the real job world.

My personal experience actually proves that the concentration on what might seem to be esoteric or impractical fields within the liberal arts can, albeit in an "undefined" fashion, actually prepares students for their professional lives. Having been educated precisely in the manner set forth by Plato and Aristotle it took just one fascinating course on 20th century Architecture by larger-than-life Professor William Jordy to forever alter my pre-college plan to become an attorney. Swallowing up the liberal arts concept whole I became an art historian. While liberal arts studies are a natural drawing card for future academics—and indeed many of my childhood friends expanded their study of fields such as Comparative Literature, Religious Studies, Economics and Biology into careers within academia—it is just as relevant for the more “professional” or “practical” fields like law, journalism and business.

Any understanding of the relevance of a liberal arts education, so ostensibly “erudite” as to be considered by some as outdated, entails an acknowledgement of its roots.  From the get-go the American system of higher education, originally modeled after that perfected within esteemed, and in many cases ancient, European institutions, was intended as an "experience:" a four year bubble in which the still developing and maturing young person could develop their thoughts and ideas within a supportive, nurturing and intellectually stimulating environment. For the most part, the farmers of Virginia weren't sending their sons to Harvard to study agrarian science. They understood that the value of a liberal arts education lay not in its curriculum, but rather, in its discourse and rhetoric.

This is precisely why many academics alternatively claim that a liberal arts background can increase a student’s marketability, thereby ensuring his future professional success. USC Professor Robert Harris has beautifully outlined its multiple benefits, specifically mentioning the manner in which it teaches you how to think, improves your perception and, by offering deep knowledge, enhances potential creative thinking. Furthermore, in an article in the Financial Post answering the multiple criticisms of the inability of business schools to prepare its graduates for leadership roles, business entrepreneur Ray B. Williams actually encourages a return to the education developed in classical Greece wherein individuals were, for example, taught to sit down and critically discuss the effectiveness of their rulers. He proposes that this broad, idealistic form of education endowed its students with a wisdom which made them more valuable to their employers in the future.

The combination of this means of teaching with a more directed plan of study, such as that noted in the more professionally-focused system embraced within Israeli higher education, may offer a solution to current cynics. In Israel students begin their studies after 2-3 years mandatory military service and apply directly to a specific course of study. Unlike the typical eighteen year old American beginning his studies, the Israeli student seeks acceptance into a specific degree program, beginning his or her higher education with answers rather than questions.  His undergraduate experience accordingly more closely resembles the American graduate one. While "Liberal Arts" are included amongst the other majors (such as literature, art history, economics and political science) offered in Israeli institutions of higher education, similar to those found in their American counterparts, one can also opt for what Americans would consider "professional" courses of study (such as Law, Dentistry or Medicine) usually reserved for graduate education in the US.

For the most part, courses of study in Israel are heavily focused on the student’s main concentration and include a minimal amount of “tastings.” Although this might seem barbaric to an American audience, I mean where is the hit-or-miss process wherein one makes amazing discoveries within fields one has never heard of (my own experience!), it makes quite a lot of sense for this slightly more mature demographic. Several years older than their American high-school-graduate counterparts, with unique life experience behind them (active military duty or an extended stint contributing to the Israeli public through social service), this population is somewhat better positioned to make concrete decisions regarding what they want to study and eventually do with their lives. Eager to get started, the university experience for them is very much a means to an end. Critics of the seemingly disconnected and irrelevant aspect of liberal arts study might appreciate the middle ground between the two systems: a combination of the "exclusive education for education’s sake" offered within the American one and the more “focused” approach which is the substance of that noted in Israel. Ironically, the latter, suggests the kind of maturity whose acquisition was one of the original goals of the liberal arts curriculum!

While it would be natural to expect a certain decline in interest within the more esoteric concentrations, especially in light of these statistical studies, the state of the economy and recent journalistic attention, that isn’t entirely the case. Indeed, even in Israel, liberal arts-oriented fields are somehow holding their own. Although not as popular as the departments of engineering, international relations, economics and computer science, the "purer" fields are still alive and kicking. The best proof that this next generation values the theory and thought behind the matter is my own sixteen year old son’s choice to study the Philosophy of Science as part of a summer course at an American Ivy League institution. Bypassing many of the courses with a more practical orientation, such as medicine, engineering or law, this product of the nuts-and-bolts Israeli education system opted to acquaint himself with writings on space, time and dimension by the likes of Berkeley and Abbot, Einstein and Van Cleve.

I’m way over my head. I’ve taken on a subject beyond my academic acquaintance and although my words somewhat assuage my own irritation and anxiety about liberal arts-bashing I’m aware that they barely skim the surface. Nevertheless, I’m continually reminded of the significance of the topic. Two few weeks ago I attended a performance of Ballet X—a company known for a repertoire showcasing contemporary choreography quite different, save for its incorporation of classical technique, from that of traditional ballet. The last piece of the evening, choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, was intended as an exposé on the life of the last castrati, those young boys who sacrificed their manhood for the sake of their art. The work describes these castrati almost as lab rats: laid out for inspection by the audience for whom they perform; depicted under strobe light meant to reveal their oddity more than their artistry. It demands that the audience understand something of 17th century European history, the particular plight of these unfortunates and their sacrifice in the name of art, while simultaneously accepting their own complicity as peeping Toms whose interest has encouraged this atrocity.

Working on this essay at the time, I sat in the dark and wondered, “Where do the synapses required to create this conceptually clever and intensely revelatory dance originate, if not in the rhetoric and discourse espoused by the Ancient Greeks." I’m a confirmed adherent.