Sunday, January 31, 2010

Seven months and twenty-three days: high-tech

In some ways, it's impossible to compare my Bar Mitzvah with the Jawa's. That doesn't stop me from trying. But every time -- no matter what detail we're discussing -- I'm never far from being amazed at how technology has shaped so many of the changes between 1978 and now, from the obvious -- the Jawa has never owned a single cassette tape; his Torah portion (which he could read, despite the sacred text's confusing lack of vowels), should he chooose to memorize it, comes to him as an audio file, downloaded onto his iPod -- to the subtle.

As impressed as we were by the retro feel of Tarantino's restaurant on Fisherman's Wharf, this Bar Mitzvah will take place in 2010, not 1962. If we choose Tarantino's for our Friday night dinner, our guests may feel a winsome golden age vibe as they ride to waterfront trolly back to the hotel, but they will be surrounded by a city re-built on the broad, monetized back of the internet.

Thirty-one years ago, my mother drove to a stationary store and asked to see some examples of invitations for formal events. The guy at the store -- it being 1977, when there were still adults working retail jobs, he may have been a guy in his 30s, married, maybe a kid -- went into the back room and brought out a big stack of paper, examples of invitations that could be made.

I think I remember having something to do with the final invitation decision. I might have picked the font, which would mean I was there at the stationery store, rifling through an oversized book full of font choices. We chose a very modern-looking, rounded, sans-serif font.

The invitations themselves were chocolate brown on one side, a lighter tan on the other. Looking back, they were very much of their era, which makes me kind of proud. As part of the first family in the greater Scranton-Wilkes Barre metropolitan area to purchase a waterbed, I once wanted very badly for people to perceive me as one always on the cutting edge.

While too old for the hippie demographic, the 1970s version of my parents fancied themselves quite fashion forward. Prior to moving to California, they'd transformed our dull Pennsylvania ranch house, adding redwood decks and startling interior colors. For dinner, we sat around a bright orange octagonal table. My mother wore her hair in a fashion-forward Florence Henderson shag and we drove small, quirky Subarus instead of the more easily comprehended Buicks and Fords of our neighbors.

Upon moving to California, we quickly became "Eichler People," purchasing one of the mid-century glass-and-wood creations of Joseph Eichler (whose subdivisions sought to bring the mid-century ethos to the middle-class), eschewing the standard green stucco dwellings so popular in Southern California during the "Bad News Bears" era.

As a kid, I enthusiastically adopted my parents' modernist aesthetic, until Sandra Bullock's influence led me down a more traditional style road. In my house, we eat dinner around a table given to a now-retired San Jose librarian's parents as a wedding present in 1947. How do I know this? She told us the whole story when we answered her ad on Craigslist.

While we will be getting input from our next-door-neighbor the graphic designer, I expect that the Jawa's Bar Mitzvah invitations will be somewhat traditional, understated and tasteful. Nothing too gaudy or inventive, they will be the J. Crew of Bar Mitzvah invitations.

However, while may appear to be painstakingly lettered by Brother Theodore by hand, our invitations will be the result of an exhaustive online search, followed by a collaborative (between my wife and my neighbor) effort that takes place mostly on a Mac. No one will put pen to paper and I doubt a printing press will be involved. So while the Jawa's invitations may look staid and conservative if compared to the me-generation hipster look of mine, their creation will have involved practices and tools unthinkable thirty-one years ago.

Of course, we'd broken the bounds of traditional gravity much earlier, when we sent an Evite "Save the Date" to many of our out-of-town guests last August. A simple email allowed us to estimate how many rooms we'd need at the Hyatt Regency. If not for Evite, the effort would have involved dozens of phone calls and/or letters. You know, "snail mail."

One thing is unchanged: we will rely on U.S. Mail for our response cards. I'm going to assume that even that process has been updated in ways that make it virtually unidentifiable as the simple evolution of post office methods, circa 1978.

As for my parents, they waited their whole lives for the time they could truly express their design sensibility. They suffered through the ranch house in Pennsylvania and the Linda Vista Street Eichler, patching together whatever unique style accents they could manage (the orange and brown graphic on their Eichler bedroom wall was a particularly notable detail) before moving to a 1980s-chic, multi-level townhouse in 1987.

Even then, they could not express themselves fully. It wasn't until retirement, when they left Orange County in the rearview, that they found the proper canvas for their singular vision. If you were a subscriber to the daily newspaper in Sun City, Arizona, a few years ago, you might have come across an article describing the forward-thinking interior design of the home at 13038 Ballad Drive, in Sun City West.

This particular retired couple, now settling into post-career vocations in the arts, rejected the standard, conservative approach to decor. Turning their backs on the sensibilities of their neighbors, they attacked the challenge of interior design with bold colors, sculpture-like lighting fixtures and spare furnishings. Their retirement home more resembled a work of art by their beloved Joan Miro than it did grandma and grandpa's house. Finally.

Meanwhile, here in San Francisco, we will continue to use modern methods and technology that did not exist in 1978 to prepare for the day our son becomes a man. Like a tomato, we will present a smooth, unblemished surface to the world, hiding behind it a year's worth of preparation cacophony.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Seven months and twenty-four days: fleeting memories

There is no Bar Mitzvah this week. Our entire schedule has been completely derailed. What will we do with the extra day?

This gives us an excellent chance to ruminate on Torah portions, the meat-and-potatoes of his Bar Mitzvah. Ask me what my Torah Portion was about, on July 29, 1978. I remember very little. It had something to do with birthrights, and included the line (transliterated poorly) ka malechem avodah; lo tasur.

That's about it.

Why do I remember so little about my Torah portion? It was 31 years ago, and until this year I had no reason to care much if I remembered it or not. It wasn't until I heard that people were trying to line their kids up with the same Torah portion they'd read for their own B'nai Mitzvot that it occurred to me that I had lost something by forgetting.

On a larger scale, of course, the lack of regard I gave to my Torah portion -- the central aspect, the most important element of this enormous rite of passage -- is an indicator of the tenuous grip faith has on my life. But we won't go into that, because I don't want people to feel they need to chime in on the tragedy/supposed liberation of my personal relationship (or lack thereof) with the man upstairs.

Lets focus instead on how the contrast between how I prepared for my Bar Mitzvah and the Jawa is preparing for his will result in different memories that will last for a lifetime.

What I remember about my Bar Mitzvah: a few fleeting images. Uncle Paul, the shoe salesman from Florida, who once described an outfit he'd worn with utter and total reverence ("White shoes, white socks, white shorts, white shirt," while slowly moving his arm across the horizon), coming up to me as we were entering Temple Beth Sholom and saying, "Nikes? To your Bar Mitzvah you're wearing Nikes?" which in no way tempered the absolute joy I felt upon convincing my mom to let me wear them over uncomfortable dress shoes. Such a revelation they were that at least two of my guests chose to emulate me.

I remember that there seemed to be a split-second between gathering in the staging area -- the temple green room, as it were -- and suddenly walking out onto the altar. There was no time to get nervous. One minute we were back there talking to the cantor (that's it. Rabbi Stern, for whatever reason, was not available. Unlike Temple Emanu-El with its deep roster of rabbis, Temple Beth Sholom, in Santa Ana, California, had only one. No Rabbit Stern, no rabbi. And I can't even remember the cantor's name.

I remember the first check. Until Grandma Sadie gave me that first envelope, I had wondered if people would be giving me money as gifts. My only prior experience with Bar Mitzvahs had been the year before, when my cousin David was called to the Torah. I knew that David had cleared close to $3,000, a truly staggering sum to my pre-teen mind. But I also knew that David lived in Great Neck, New York, where they take Bar Mitzvahs much more seriously than they do in Orange County, California.

David's Bar Mitzvah had been almost exactly like a wedding, except that there was only one guest of honor, a thirteen-year-old boy. The reception was held at Leonard's of Great Neck, where, I'm reasonably certain, all the Joneses had their receptions. I spent almost the entire party standing outside the ballroom, talking to my second or third cousin Richard Brenin, who was only allowed to watch television for one hour per week. For that hour, he chose to watch "Star Trek." Richard, I'd been told, was genius.

Inside the ballroom, a live band was entertaining the guests. At one point, the band stopped playing and gave David's family, which included my mom's brother, Uncle Jules, his then-wife and David's three sisters, the kind of introduction I imagined Henny Youngman, my dad's favorite comedian, received when he headlined shows in the Catskills. Very Borscht Belt, in other words.

Earlier that day, David and I had taken their dog for a walk. We were already wearing our suits. I asked him if he was nervous, and he said, "No." I mulled this over, but mostly I was trying to think up ways to get my parents to buy me a set of cool glow-in-the-dark solar system decals like the ones David had on the ceiling of his bedroom.

Later, I came back into the ballroom. David and his friends were running around as if possessed, sneakily drinking the dregs of the adults' cocktails. "I'm totally stoned," I remember one of them inaccurately saying.

My Bar Mitzvah wasn't like that. It was a California Bar Mitzvah, far more casual. Maybe I set the tone with my brown Nikes. I don't remember.

I remember a few things about the service itself: during the run-up, I'd insisted that there was no way I was going to chant my Torah and Haftarah portions. The idea of singing in front of all these people? No way.

But they tricked me. When I received my cassette tape, already made legendary as the sum total of my Bar Mitzah training, it was of the cantor -- chanting my Torah portion. I had no choice but to chant. Thirty-one years later, I'm still thankful that my voice had not yet begun to change. It was a pure Tony DiFranco tenor; not a hint of Peter Brady cracking.

Thinking back, I do remember the moment before I started chanting, looking out at everyone in the synagogue, holding an elaborate pointer in one hand and thinking it was kind of funny. Did anyone in that room actually think I would be reading from the Torah, using this pointer to keep my place? It had no vowels!

Right before I started reading, Chris Drape came into the room on crutches. A great athlete (and now a high school principal in Seattle), Chris Drape was cursed with brittle bones. He was always hurt. This time he was on crutches. Very squeaky crutches. The entire room turned and looked at him as he hobbled in. Fortunately, Chris Drape also had a winning smile and a very polite personality. His squeaky entrance broke the tension, allowing me to charge into my (chanted) Torah portion with something approaching enthusiasm.

Never before or since have I been so aware of my voice, alone in a large room, hanging out there for everyone to hear. And remember, since then I've delivered 45-minute lectures about Beowulf before classrooms full of bored teenagers.

I remember the cantor following my performance and mentioning that I'd been swinging my leg back and forth the entire time I was "reading" from the Torah. As for my haftarah, I forgot it completely. Not a word. It wasn't until afterwards, as my parents and I accepted congratulations from our guests, that my Uncle Steve, a former rabbinical student, told me, "You forgot your haftarah."

After the ceremony, the entire party moved immediately into a room adjacent to the sanctuary. This was where Richard Colodny -- the forgotten Bar Mitzvah guest and only Temple Beth Sholom Hebrew school classmate to rate an invite to my party -- had his Bar Mitzvah party. He had a simple luncheon.

We met there to complete the traditional cutting of the challah. Each Bar Mitzvah boy (and Bat Mitzvah girl) slices into a challah that weighs the exact amount he or she weighed upon birth. Mine, if I remember right, weighed eight pounds and two ounces.

Then we went home, where caterers had set up tables in our backyard. It was a very nice daytime party, and I've already talked about it here. The swimming next door. The subtle competition between Chris Drape and Dave Krueger to see who could successfully lip-synch more lines from Steve Martin's "Lets Get Small" while the rest of us sat around in our bathing trunks, wrapped in towels and laughing our 13-year-old heads off. I mean, really, really small.

No one stole the adults' drinks, as far as I know. Richard Colodny was, sadly, forgotten. I carry that with me to this day. Someone took a picture of my cousin Deborah holding our dog in front of the Yucca tree that poked my dad in the head so often that he finally began calling it "The Hat-Grabber." The adults, I think, had a good time. Bob Finny, our next-door neighbor, showed up in shorts. I always felt bad about that. Weirdly, as it turns out, Roger A. Hunt was not there.

I can't imagine that the Jawa will have such fleeting memories of his Bar Mitzvah, unless there was a sustained nine-month run-up to mine that no one ever told me about or I've forgotten. Of course, it helps that 99% of his classmates are having Bar and Bat Mitzvahs as well. Two years of classes at Temple Emanu-El will probably leave him more invested in the nuts and bolts of the actual ceremony. He got more than a tape.

I think that the Jawa's Bar Mitzvah -- and the entire 2009-2010 Bar/Bat Mitzvah season -- will figure prominently in the memories of his early teen years. Good for him. We couldn't do Leonard's of Great Neck, but it'll be a good party anyway. Memorable.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Seven months and twenty-five days: wonder years begin

Thirteen-plus years ago, upon learning that we would soon be parents, Sandra Bullock and I followed the time-honored path of the educated middle class: we went to the nearest bookstore (in our case Bailey/Coy books in Seattle) and filled our cart with parenting books: "What to Expect When You're Expecting," "The Girlfriend's Guide to Pregnancy," and, for me, to honor my so-called literary bent, "Operating Instructions. (Back then, everyone who knew me did their best to find some way to convert each and every stage of life, every new job, every rite of passage, every major change, into an opportunity to inspire me to write. They're still trying.)

We took the books home and studied them. Each offered advice relating to key elements of parenting, but they were very age-specific; none of them had anything to say about what to do with your kid once they reach toddlerhood. Even "What to Expect the First Year" cut off at 12 months.

So a year later, we went back to Bailey/Coy -- this time pushing what we were convinced was the most adorable child in the world in an impractical stroller I picked out because it had giant wheels that I thought looked tough, long before I figured out what features (lightweight, nimble, good storage space, easily foldable) actually made a difference in a stroller -- and bought more books.

What halcyon days those were. How great it was to feel like every day, with everything we did, we were re-inventing the process of raising a child. The mistakes were to be expected. After all, no one had ever attempted to raise a child in the enlightened manner that we were. No one knew that sixteen-month-old children should be expected to walk the half-mile home from daycare. No one knew that infants could easily take naps sidled up to a sidewalk table at the Broadway Grille. These days we scoff loudly and often rudely at young parents for committing the crime of being like we were. I'm sure someone was ridiculing us back then. We deserved it.

Because as your child ages, you realize that they have yet to write the book that applies to every situation. I don't care who you are; you're not forging new ground. Nothing so noble as that. No, you're basically making it up as you go along. And, I'm fond of telling anyone who'll listen, especially the childless, if you care at all about being a parent, well, then you constantly feel like you're failing.

The Jawa continued to grow. We moved from Seattle to San Francisco. We purchased "Real Boys," "Real Boys' Voices," and "Raising Your Spirited Child." We're readers, so we continued to search for the proper users manual. Still, there were gaps.

The funny thing -- and by this I mean funny tragic, not funny ha-ha -- is that the very moment I start to get a handle on whatever phase my Jawa has entered is the exact same moment he decides to move on into the next one/

Today, I went to Barnes & Noble and, for the first time in several years, purchased a book that would help me raise my child. This time, something was different: the book was for him, not me.

After school, we went to Krispy Kreme to take advantage of two two-for-one coupons that magically appeared on our kitchen table yesterday. We hadn't been there in a long time, because ever since I had Top Pot donuts in Seattle, nothing else measures up.

This time I suffered through two Krispy Kreme donuts so I could have some time alone with my Jawa to do a little check on where he's at, because from where I've been sitting it seems like he's done a complete personality transformation over the past month.

Our conversation confirmed it. "I'm not interested in Pokemon anymore," he said casually, longish hair sticking out from under the trucker's hat he's begun jamming onto his head every morning in response to requests that he "fix (his) crazy hair." "And Yu-Gi-Oh, well, I don't think I'll be buying any more cards." His eyes wandered to his iPod touch, which he'd managed to ignore for almost a full minute. "Check out this app, Dad," he said, brightly. "It's a mood screen. You touch it and it changes colors."

When I was 28 years old, I got my cholesterol checked. It came back at 308. I think the day before I got those results was the last day I didn't devote at least part of to wondering how much longer I have before the heart attack hits.

So I have spent some time learning about heart disease and heart attacks. One thing that's stood out to me, I can't remember where I heard this, was that an EKG of someone having a heart attack looks like an electrical storm; all jagged, irregular lines. It really looks chaotic, like something significant is happening.

I thought of that today when I was trying to describe to Sandra Bullock what all of this sudden teenage development looks from my vantage point, and after glancing at the book I bought and saying, out loud at Barnes and Noble, "I'm not ready for this.": it looks like an electrical storm. Everything was calm, we had things relatively under control, and then it all went crazy. Today, my son and I spent a half-hour discussing the various activities people in his class do when they go on dates. Sometimes, they go to the movies. Sometimes, they just walk around.

'm not lamenting. I welcome this enormous challenge. Also, I loved being a teenager, so I don't have any of those "most traumatic time of my life" memories to offload onto him.

And yet, it feels like this is where you earn your parenting stripes. The other stuff was tough, sure. I remember sitting there in our one-bedroom apartment one afternoon with a screaming infant in my lap, trying to grade 36 essays about "The Canterbury Tales," thinking, "I can't remember another time in my life when I wanted to sleep so badly but wasn't allowed to."

So far, it just feels like the questions are bigger and the stakes a bit higher. I've always told my Jawa that the worst part about being his dad was that he was going to get bigger and I was going to get older, and, well, that part is here now. No more feeling like the king of the jungle, carrying my sleeping child into bed.

Ah, well, what are you going to do? I can pinpoint the moment when we went from entertainers to catering; now it's time to settle into the role of silent chauffer. All ears, no mouth.

I just spent a few minutes bedside, talking to the Jawa about the new book we got him. "I've read a couple chapters," he reported. "I already knew all of this stuff, you know. You're about four years late."

"Sure, but how does all this stuff feel to you?" I asked.

He thought about it for a second, then smiled. Same smile I used to get when we sung the "Smiley face" song ("Smiley face, smiley face, smiley face... splash!" It was meant to be sung in the bath.). "Weird," he answered.

I remember seventh grade very clearly. I was four feet, eleven inches tall and had a mad crush on Robin Hardy. I almost stopped hanging out withe Fred Luna, one of my best friends, because he wore Toughskins. And we had to take showers in P.E.

Yup. Weird is a pretty good call.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Seven months and twenty-six days: securing food and lodging

My wife brought work home tonight. She is taking a rare break from Bar Mitzvah planning. At first glance, everything looks the same. She is sitting at the kitchen table, intently staring into her laptop. If not for the stack of scientific-looking papers sitting neatly next to her on the table, you might think she's aimed her laser-like focus on flower arrangements or finding the most inexpensive bulk orders of chopsticks available.

If you saw her face, though, you would see it bereft of the enthusiasm and joy it has when she is in Bar Mitvah mode. And then you would know the difference between Bar Mitzvah planning and work.

As for me, I found myself with a bit of free time at work this afternoon, so I walked down to the Cosmopolitan Cafe to scope it out as a potential Friday night post-services dinner venue.

I know, I know, we already decided on Sinbad's. Seduced by its kitschy neon sign, waterfront location and whiff of San Francisco past, we almost skipped the all-important step of checking to see what the rest of the world thought of it.

The reviews were uniformly bad. They painted a picture of Sinbad's as dusty, out-of-date, perhaps smelling like disinfectant, worth the trip only to bathe in ironic nostalgia, which, when you're 25 is often enough to carry the day, but when you're 44 -- or 13 -- barely registers on the taste-o-meter.

When I read that Sinbad's had been the scene of a Christmas day murder this year, we shut the book on Sinbad's and started from scratch.

The problem is one of planning and semantics. On Friday, we must get 24 people from the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero to Temple Emanu-El, to dinner and then back to the Hyatt Regency. To do this, we must rent a 24-passenger bus (and driver). The bus rents by the hour.

As discussed in these virtual pages earlier, at first we thought we'd have dinner out by the temple. And then we thought we could save some money by choosing a restaurant near the Hyatt. The bus could drop us at the restaurant and then disappear into the night, saving us about two hours of paying for a bus.

The problem is that the downtown restaurants are so expensive that they cancel out any advantage we might have gained by jettisoning the bus two hours early. Many of them feature menus designed to be appreciated by palates far more sophisticated than ours.

So here we are back at square one, restaurant-wise.

Maybe the problem is that we chose to house our guests at the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero, famous as the setting of Mel Brooks' "High Anxiety" and the U2 video where Bono tags the sculpture out behind the hotel because he's so righteous that laws of private property no longer apply to him.

We could have gone with some place close to temple, or a place close to the Golden Gate Yacht Club, where we're having the party. We could have found some place more hip, less expensive, some place with parking. We did none of these things.

The Hyatt Regency is about 50 paces from the Embarcadero BART stop. Our out-of-town guests -- some of whom have very little experience in an urban setting and are freaking out enough to call and ask for a detailed primer on San Francisco's public transit systems eight months before arriving -- can get off their planes, pick up BART at the airport, then get out at the Embarcadero stop and be staring at their hotel.

More importantly, the Hyatt Regency has existed in the imaginations of my family since 1976, when my mother, sisters and I came to San Francisco and met our cousins there. I was 11.

For weeks afterward, the backside of every piece of homework or classwork, every quiz or test I took was covered with crudely drawn images of the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero. Sketches of the glass elevators replaced war scenes as my go-to for killing time after finishing an assignment. Sometimes I drew floorplans, small arrows neatly pointing out the multi-story lobby, the elevators and the indoor fountains.

The time for me to outgrow my fascination with the Hyatt Regency quickly came and went. The lobby's space-age open spaces, it's Las Vegas-tinted glass elevators, its strangely muffled sound quality, all should have become things I made fun of, appreciated only in a winking Sinbad's sort of way.

No dice.

When we moved to San Francisco in 2000, I waited about three weeks before taking my then-three year-old Jawa to the Hyatt Regency. Over the past ten years, we've taken almost every one of his friends there, his cousins, my friends when they come to town, even my co-workers for a drink once, who didn't know how disappointed I was when they exclaimed, "I love it! It's so tacky!" until right now.

So when the time came to choose a hotel for our big event, we didn't have to look far before returning to the luxury hotel of our fantasies, the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero. Come August 20, we will check into a room (the first time I will have ever seen an actual guest room) there, along with the out-of-town segment of the Bar Mitzvah party, and we will ride those glass elevators until the novelty wears off, as if that'll ever happen.

The Cosmopolitan Cafe is two blocks from the Hyatt Regency. You can see it from the front door of the restaurant. It's kind of urban and hip. A review posted in the entryway says something about it being "a taste of New York." I have no idea if it will fit into our budget, which is mostly fantasy anyway, since a realistic "budget" for this event would be capped at about $10.

San Francisco's list of tourist attractions is as long as it is familiar. Everyone knows about the Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street, the Cable Cars; come August, our tourists will learn about another tourist attraction, one not as well-known as the others but no less important, in our house at least. To at least one local, the glass elevators at the Hyatt Regency will always remind him of growing up in San Francisco.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Seven months and twenty-seven days: dresses and escort cards

The first dress arrived today. It came regular mail, from Nordstrom's in Seattle. No one knows if it fits or how it looks. On the hanger, it looks great.

This, I've been informed, is the dress for the party. There will be another for the actual service. For Friday night, business casual will suffice. I wish this were evidence that we're nearing the big day, but it's not.

As it turns out, it will be the dress for neither the service or the party. Demonstrating the risks involved with mail order apparel, Sandra Bullock just strode into the living room wearing a frown. "I don't love it," she said.

Maybe this is why you order a dress almost eight months prior to your event. She should have listened to me. I was lukewarm from the start.

Last night, we nailed down the place settings. Napkin rings were the missing link. You may not have given much thought to the orientation of your eating utensils at the last Bar or Bat Mitzvah you attended. Would you have payed closer attention had you known that nothing was left to chance? If you had known that endless prototypes of fork/knife/spoon strategies had been carefully assembled months prior, considered, scrapped and re-considered and generally paid the kind of attention usually reserved for large-scale government operations?

Had you seen the level of detail considered on our kitchen table the previous January, you would want to lift that perfect place setting above your head like Kunta Kinte's father raised his newborn child over his, saying to the sky, "Behold, the only thing greater than yourself!"

Maybe I'm being dramatic. She spent a lot of time on those things, though. Really. And they came out perfect, as far as I can tell.

No less time than is being spent on every detail of this thing, though. Last night, as I counted down the minutes until the ten o'clock showing of "Men of a Certain Age" on TNT, my bride, looking as youthful as the day we met, sat at her computer, contemplating escort cards.

Escort cards are not a keepsake you might pick up at a particularly business-like brothel. In fact, they're not even always cards. Frankly, I'd thought that by yesterday, our long national nightmare over the escort cards was over. We'd considered Chinese takeout cartons (concealing fortune cookies, even) and even individual rocks. All had fallen far short of the ideal.

Sandra Bullock was not satisfied. While both ideas were original, they were impractical -- either too expensive (cartons), or, as a particularly wise member of our household quickly pointed out, not the kind of thing you want to put in the hands of a group of 13-year-old boys (rocks).

Last week, I don't know where or when, she suddenly produced a roll of wrapping paper that she loved. Since then, she's been trying to find ways to use it. So far it's appeared in the centerpieces. As of last night it looks like a good bet to show up in the escort cards as well.

I previewed three different looks, all featuring the aforementioned wrapping paper. All were compact and neat, and sought different ways to present the information so crucial to an escort cards -- the information that makes an escort card an escort card: the guest's name and table assignment.

How could it be so simple? Could our escort cards really wind up being little cardboard triangles covered with cool wrapping paper? How conventional.

Maybe that was what was amiss with each simple model. The answer simply could not be so obvious, so Sandra Bullock returned to her laptop, where hundreds, no thousands of party supply sites awaited.

"You can find anything on here," she told me at one point.

There are times that I feel like I'm not holding up my end of this deal. Other than chronicling the run-up to our August 21 Bar Mitzvah, attending retreats against my will and taking a real interest in finding the actual venues -- hotel, restaurant, yacht club (for the party) -- I haven't done much in preparation for my son's ascent into manhood. Even as I write this, I'm wondering if I'm correct about those place set-ups. Was it just napkin rings that they were so enthusiastic about, or was it the whole set-up? I remember they liked whatever they did much, much more than they liked the escort cards. The contrast was stunning.

When I see the obvious joy my wife takes from browsing hundreds of party supply sites, the level of commitment she puts toward creating centerpieces eight-and-a-half months before the actual event or the serious consternation shopping online for a dress causes her, I realize a couple of things:

First, I am reminded at how she loathes idleness. Nature may abhor a vacuum. My wife loves a vacuum, especially a Dyson. What she loathes is free time, and I've had seventeen-plus years to get used to that.

At first, I thought the frenzy of activity was in response to my lack of movement, like she was making up for me so we'd add up to complete when put together. As the years have passed, I've decided that's partially true. Nothing makes her as happy as when I exhibit some signs of industriousness. "You emptied the dishwasher!"

What's equally true is that my Sandra Bullock loves herself some sustained activity. When the activity is over, she goes to sleep.

This event, with its multi-layered, extensive checklist of things to research, buy and assemble, she has found a perfect way to fill the evenings I spend reading, watching TV or doing crossword puzzles. Or writing in here.

Sometimes I imagine how successful she would have been as a wedding planner, or as a person who puts together corporate events. Had not she heard the siren song of the lab, she could have found equal success in any field requiring organization, enthusiasm and stellar project management skills.

Those of you reading this who are with us on August 21, seven months and twenty-seven days from now, will see the culmination not of a frenzied month-long period of activity but the organically occuring, well-organized results of almost a year of planning. So far we've felt the crushing weight of the scope of this event not at all. I don't expect to feel it until the Friday before, when people start arriving and I realize that there is no way we'll be able to spend a sufficient amount of time with any one of our guests.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Seven months and twenty-eight days: enter the bad people

There is a rite of passage each Jew must complete before he or she has reached adulthood, besides a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. This is an unpleasant task, one most of us, in retrospect, would have liked to have avoided for as long as possible. No matter who you are or where you are from, there is that day when you realize that there are people in the world who just flat-out don't like Jews, and no amount of sparkling personality, empathy, understanding or smarts is going to change their mind.

When I was a kid, I was certain that I would have been able to talk Hitler out of sending me to the showers. I was so charming and funny, I thought, that Der Fuhrer would have seen past his silly little prejudices and judged me for myself.

It can be subtle, like the gift-wrapped box of Matzo ball soup mix Richard Parks presented to me in ninth grade drafting class; or it can be in your face, like the passionate argument made at a college retreat that calling someone "a Jew" because they were being cheap wasn't a slur because it was true.

Here in San Francisco, it often takes the form of, believe it or not, "pro-peace" activists, who feel that their commitment to liberation for the "Palestinian" people allows them the freedom to say whatever they want about Israel and Jews, because we deserve it anyway.

And then there is the Westboro Baptist Church, under Pastor Fred Phelps. Last week, the Westboro Baptist Church, of Topeka, Kansas, informed our school that they would be "picketing" us as part of a short San Francisco swing. We're slotted for 10 am. After that, they'll hit the JCC, the Stanford Hillel, City Hall and a performance of "Fiddler on the Roof." Looking at their itinerary, it doesn't seem that different from any other tourists' plans. The difference is that the WBC will arrive at these places carrying big, colorful signs that read things like "God Hates Jews!" or "Jews Killed Christ," or the popular "Fag-lover Jews!"

The primary thrust of this organization, as far as I can tell -- and trust me, I've made it my business over the past week to read up on them -- is that the United States has fallen so far from grace that they are past redemption. Instead of looking for forgiveness, we need to be scolded. First among our sins is tolerance of "the homosexual lifestyles," a term which, as archaic as it sounds, is actually a much nicer way of putting it than they do.

Today, I watched about half of a documentary about them, called "The Most Hated Family in America," and came away thinking that they just might be insane enough to not even rate as offensive. These people force four-year-olds to stand on street corners holding signs that say "Sweden = Fags!" Yes, no one is immune.

Which is why I'm torn on the proper response to this circus. We all received an email from the school last week, warning us of their plans and urging us to let the school handle the situation. I posted it on my Facebook page, which earned me an email from a fellow parent, warning me that publicizing the event was playing into the hands of protesters. I respectfully disagreed, and here's why:

Whatever we do in response -- and I'm leaning toward nothing, but only because I don't think I can trust myself not to get in their faces were I to show up intending to stand silent vigil -- I think it's important that as many people as possible know that a) there are these types of people in the world, and b) Jews will always be on their short list of targets.

The fallout has been interesting. There has been an e-mail string going back and forth all week. One parent, a guy whose opinions and overall self-confidence I really respect, thinks we have no business taking this lying down. He thinks that if we do nothing, it'll be another instance of Jews getting stepped on and doing nothing about it.

And I have to say, I sort of agree. I think part of the reason this group is targeting us is because they know they can. I mean, think about it; if you hate gay people so much that your organization's web site address is, and you're coming to San Francisco, wouldn't you logically set up shop at some key gay gathering spots, like, say, the corner of Castro and Market or the LGBT Center? Why drag the Jews into this? Could it be because you know that with Jews, intellectual, pacifist Jews, you stand very little risk of having them attack your van and breaking the windows, like an angry mob has done to them once before? (You can see this on youtube.)

Jews aren't going to do that. Especially not San Francisco Jews. At the very most, we'll show up and stand there looking defiant. We'll take the high road, make a symbolic stand. We're too smart and too aware of the long-term consequences to go postal on them, no matter how much they deserve it. Plenty of the guys on this email chain have made very logical and smart arguments along those lines -- This is what the WBC wants, for us to go nuts. They can't exist unless we give them credence, they fund themselves by suing anyone who curtails their rights to free speech, etc. -- all solid reasoning, and yet I still want to go there on Friday and punch someone in the mouth.

Which I won't do, because I'm an adult and can easily persuade myself as to the folly of engaging with lunatics. Also, I'm a coward.

And I'm a big boy. I already knew that these people exist. The WBC is the most over-the-top of them; the stoner baby boomer who used to live down the street and casually told of being "Jewed down" is much more subtle.

My Jawa is not a big boy, recent slow dances notwithstanding. Nor are the 350 other kids at his school. The school told us that they were going to talk to the middle schoolers, and they're keeping the kids in from recess that day. (another controversial move. Is it prudent, or are we teaching them the old ways, eloquently put as "Keep your head down, Moishe; don't make any trouble," in one email I got this week.)

What if a kindergartner gets a hall pass and is on his way to the bathroom when he spots a mob of people -- some adults, but some his age -- yelling about how God hates him? How does that look when you're six?

And what about the middle schoolers? They're cogent enough to understand what's going on, yet young enough to respond by simply wanting to throw down with these idiots. Has anyone yet told them that adults can be awful, or do they trust all of us to be rational, with their best interests at heart? We are trusting the school to shepherd our kids through this ugly but sadly unavoidable rite of passage. One day you go to school and everything's normal; by the time you go home, everything's different. You're different. And not in a good way.

I still don't know what I'm going to do Friday, but I'm leaning toward going along with the crowd and trusting myself not to lose it when confronted with this crowd of knuckle-draggers. Anthropologically, I don't know if I can miss it.

I'm not one to believe in evil. I think most of the time people do terrible things because they're so much more focused on their own needs than anyone else's that they don't really care about the fallout from their actions. They're flawed, stupid, inconsiderate and no less dangerous, but they're not evil. Only psychos do bad stuff for kicks, I think. Everyone else has a tangible -- and logical, to them -- motivation.

But this group, with their signs and their cocksure attitude -- even in the face of what must be endless questioning, confrontation and inquiry -- they're something else. They take their kids and teach them to hate, blindly, completely and without ever letting up. That, they teach them, is what will get them to Heaven while the rest of us end up burning for eternity.

But look at the bright side. At least they're not blowing themselves up to get there.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Seven months and twenty-nine days: a (semi) fictional account

The night was perfect for romance -- a bayside ballroom, the outside air cool and breezy. Clouds obscured the moon, but the city skyline provided all the atmosphere anyone could want.

Sophie's Bat Mitzvah was different. It was the first one held outside the city. Instead of gathering at one of the usual spots -- a number of venues in the Presidio, various hotels around town -- she had her party at The Spinnaker, a waterfront restaurant in Sausalito. Through the ballroom's floor-to-ceiling windows, partygoers were treated to a view of Angel Island and San Francisco.

There was a deck, where revelers could go to take a break from the party inside. But most of the action was inside. That's where the DJ set a mood by turns rowdy and intimate.

As of tonight, the boy had attended Bar and Bat Mitzvahs numbering in two digits. For this one, his parents had driven him over the Golden Gate Bridge, dropped him at the party and then disappeared. That's how it works. Where they went was of no concern to him. He knew they'd appear, summoned by the internal clock he'd come to depend on, as the party wound down.

While this Bat Mitzvah was already different, for most of the evening it proceeded much as all the others had. After an hour, they boy shed his suit jacket and untucked his shirt. It was easier to dance that way.

Because the boy loved dancing. Though he looked forward to each week with varying levels of enthusiasm, once he heard the music and saw the dance floor, he was smitten. With or without a partner -- usually without -- he stayed on the parquet for hours, the endless parade of music filling his ears then traveling through his bloodstream until it reached all of his extremities at once. He have to move.

Over the past year, the boy had watched his classmates change, while he stayed the same, he thought. Some of the changes were maddening -- friends who'd once shared his interests had spun off in different directions. Some even scoffed at the way they "used to be," leaving the boy confused and angry.

Nowhere were these changes more obvious than at the Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. "Make good choices," his parents would tell him each week. He saw some classmates, usually boys whose sense of mischief had developed before anything else, being disruptive, snickering during services, disappearing from the sanctuary then re-apprearing in the farthest corners of the room, a knowing smirk on their faces.

At the parties, it seemed, the groups were divided along several lines. Here was a group that wanted to dance; another wanted to congregate in small groups on the edges of the dance floor, pointing and speaking with their mouths covered.

Some boys couldn't stay in one place. They spent the evenings in constant exploration, finding hidden alcoves and secret passageways, then returning to the party exhilarated, chests thrust out in pride after eluding parents and security guards in their adventures.

The girls, the boy noted, usually did one of two things: they danced with each other, or they stood in circles, excitedly talking to one another. Sometimes, almost every week, they chose one or two boys to follow -- usually the same boys week after week. Why they did this was a complete mystery to the boy. He just wanted to dance.

It wasn't that he didn't like girls. Back in third and fourth grade, he'd had a girlfriend. Her name was Rachel. For some reason -- he couldn't remember why --they'd stopped being boyfriend and girlfriend. She'd since faded into the group, another girl he'd known for a very long time.

But these guys, some of whom had been among his best friends, all they wanted to do was chase around the girls. It didn't seem very productive, nor much fun. He was curious, sure, but that's it. Girls didn't like the things he liked. They didn't care about robots or Star Wars. Their idea of a perfect afternoon certainly didn't include taking BART across the bay and spending a few hours in the basement at Berkeley Games, competing in Yu-Gi-Oh battles with unkempt teenagers.

The food had been good. The view out the windows was nice. The DJ was okay. He hadn't been at all prepared when Rachel asked him to slow dance, but she did.

And it wasn't bad. He couldn't figure out why he was nervous. It was Rachel, after all, and it had been years since they were going together. Slow dancing wasn't as much fun as dancing to the Black Eyed Peas, but he could see where it had its merits. He liked the way Rachel's hair smelled, like flowers. It felt cool to have his hands on her shoulders. It made him feel strong.

So they danced to the next slow song, too. And then the one after that. This DJ played more slow music than the others.

As they danced, the boy began to wonder how this looked to everyone else. Thinking of this made him embarassed. He'd have to play this off afterwards. For right now, though, it was nice. It made him feel older, though he wished he didn't have to look up to see Rachel's face. This pre-adolescence thing could be a drag, everyone growing at different rates.

He wished he'd watched the clock more closely, and not been slow-dancing when his parents came to drive him home. He tried, casually, to move Rachel across the room so they'd be hidden. Too late. His parents, who looked like they might have run across a few alcoholic beverages wherever they'd gone during the party, had seen him. He could see them animatedly talking to each other, then looking in his direction. Ugh.

He hadn't even had time to comtemplate the meaning of it. Did this mean Rachel liked him again? Did it mean he liked Rachel? What would happen Monday at school? Is this what had been going on with eveyrone else? Could these be the first stirrings of feelings that might one day render Yu-Gi-Oh cards and Legos unimportant and trivial? And now, without any preparation, he'd have to face his parents.

The song ended. To buy time, he disappeared into the crowd to get his suit jacket. He put it on, his shirt still untucked and hurried back across the room. When he reached his parents, he brusquely said, "We'll talk about it later," then continued out to the foyer of the restaurant. "Come on," he said tersely, "lets go already." If only he'd been able to get that smile off his face, he thought. Why am I smiling?

Fortunately, the fallout turned out to be minor. He'd carpooled with the Russians, and managed to keep up a constant stream of conversation during the ride home, diverting his parents attention and giving them no chance to pry. Whenever his mother made a comment about "slow-dancing with Rachel," he ignored her. She didn't press the issue.

He went to sleep that night feeling a little bit different. He was confused, but it was a good kind of confusion, like when you get the Lego magazine and the Nintendo magazine on the same day and can't decide which one to read first.

As he slept, he dreampt of the same things he always dreamed of. He woke up early the next morning and snuck into his parents room. He climbed into bed with them, something he'd done on and off since he was a toddler but hadn't done lately, curling up next to his mother and sleeping another two hours.

Today was like any other day. He built things with Legos, played games on his iTouch, watched old "Star Trek" episodes on his computer. He indulged his father for awhile by watching football games with him. Everything had returned to normal.

But as he took a shower that night, his mind wandered to the previous evening and he found himself humming one of the songs they'd played. Thinking about last night made him feel like he had a great secret, one whose exclusivity made keeping it a thousand times better than sharing it with anyone else would.

Nobody but but the boy knows how he feels, what's going on in his head as he takes his first tentative steps out of childhood, but if he were able to ask someone, they might tell him that what he's walking toward is the next big thing.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Seven months and thirty-one days: scheduling concerns

I can't speak for every family at Brandeis Hillel Day School, but at least for our family, a full year of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs has played havoc with our schedules. Imagine a year in which nearly every Saturday is scheduled out. How would that change the way you live your life?

To start, when would you schedule haircuts for your Jawa? Though overall, I'd have to say that the San Francisco I dreamed of for eight years in Seattle doesn't exist, at least a little part of it is real at the Parkview, where our Jawa has gotten his hair cut since his third birthday.

The Parkview is in North Beach, a half block from the apartment we shared when we first came here from Seattle. Those were heady days. We all felt like we'd hit the big time. The fact that our car lived two blocks away from us, behind a locked gate that we needed to open each morning before leaving for work, onlly reinforced our feelings that we had become urban warriors.

That Parkview, on Union Street directly across from Washington Square, was part of that fantasy. A sign in the front window says "Tony is here!" so that everyone wishing to experience San Francisco,circa 1962, doesn't have to work too hard to find out where that can be done.

When we began going to the Parkview, Tony worked one window, Sal the other. That way they could check out the woman as they walked by. A black-and-white photo on the wall shows Tony as a young man, cutting hair while wearing pointy-toed boots. The photo was taken in 1964, Tony once told me.

During those halcyon early days in North Beach, we'd sit in the barber chair together, my knees locked around the squirming, three-year-old Jawa. People walking by would find themselves compelled to stop and watch the impossibly cute tableau unfolding in the barber shop window, which Sal didn't mind, as long as the people who stopped were young women.

Every other patron of the Parkview, it seemed, was a 70-year-old Italian woman. One time, Tony had the Jawa's hair slicked back, ready to cut, when two of the women exploded: "He looks like a mafioso!" they shouted.

We haven't lived in North Beach for nine years. During tha ttime, we've never considered giving up the Parkview and Tony; even though Tony only works Saturdays, which is suddenly a massive inconvenience. How do you fit in haircuts when every Saturday is spoken for?

Right now, the Jawa's hair resembles that of John Lennon during the "Rubber Soul" phase. And yet we are at least a week away from a haircut. Tomorrow, seven months and thirty days to Bar Mitzvah, we will call Tony and see if he's got any space available the following week. If not then, we will wait until February. By then, the Jawa's look will have evolved to where it calls to mind the floppy 'do worn by alt-country superhero Jay Farrar. At times like this, we thank whoever's responsible for sparing our child the Jewfro unwillingly sported by his father at a similar age.

But there is an upside. Sandra Bullock and I are invited to only a handful of the 40-plus Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Since we wisely stopped reproducing at one, this means we have almost every Saturday night free -- with built-in, gratis babysitting, which has not only no cost going for it, but also a happy avoidance of what was become the awkward relationship between a twelve-year-old boy and his babysitter.

So each week, while the Jawa is demoing new dance moves to the get-up-and-boogie sounds of Denon and Doyle, Sandra Bullock and I are out enjoying a guilt-free dinner somewhere, usually accompanied by friends also not invited a Bar Mitzvah.

Tomorrow, for example, the Bat Mitzvah is in Sausalito, across the bridge in Marin County. Since I not-at-all-secretly long to leave the disfunctional chaos of the city for the wilds of the north, any chance to cross that bridge is welcome. Tomorrow we will be joining one-half of our Marin friends The Beautiful Couple for dinner, the other half being perpetually out of town operating her PR firm.

Last Saturday, we crossed the bridge for a friend's birthday party. Two weeks before that, we had dinner in Cow Hollow with the visiting Roger Hunt and his youthful bride.

So we're not complaining. What suffers, though, are the lazy Saturdays, the family outings involving hikes, casual drives and general Bay Area exploration. I work more Sundays than not, so that's out.

As for the Jawa, he's expressed a few concerns. right now, his perfect day involves all-day pajama-wearing and marathon computer, Wii and iPod touch sessions. You can tell the end of a good day by the stack of dishes laying around his room. My son, the homebody.

This year, though, that perfect day has become an untouchable fantasy. Every Saturday, he squeezes into a monkey suit, puts on a tie and heads out at around 9:30. Sometimes we drive, sometimes he's driven.

Then he sits in temple for two-and-a-half hours with at least two of his classmates' parents sitting one row back, eagle-eyed and looking for malcontents. Though we don't have a formal system, I can tell you that every major case of misbehavior has been duly reported to all of the parents in our class within an hour of the conclusions of services.

When he comes back from that, all he wants to do is peel off the formalwear and hang around the house. No hike, no casual drive, no general Bay Area exploration. A few hours later, he has to garb up again and hit the party circuit.

He doesn't complain often. When he does, I tell him that the remarkable thing is that someday, he'll miss all of this. Seventh grade is probably going to mean a lot to these kids. In other settings, seventh grade is just another grade, albeit one fraught with pre-adolescent peril. Add to that 40 or so big-time events, complete with dancing and catering, and you've got something that has to leave a lifelong impression.

And free babysitting, which isn't so bad, either.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Eight months: dance this night away

You'll forgive me if I seem a bit out of sorts today. The two hours I devoted to doing our taxes left me feeling like I'd been sideswiped by a truck.

People get all weird when you try to discuss finances. It's considered poor form to tell people how much money you make, even worse form to ask them how much they make. It's not like we can't all tell who has money and who doesn't. Putting a specific number on it isn't going to change that.

Same with Bar Mitzvahs. If you attend enough of them, you can pretty much figure out how much was spent on what. The DJs, for example; almost everyone uses the same DJ outfit, Denon and Doyle. A nice pair of Irishmen, loaning themselves out for the enjoyment of Jews.

Actually, Denon and Doyle, as far as I can tell, are a major conglomerate. And they have a monopoly over the local Bar Mitzvah scene. Save for a couple of exceptions, families who chose the mysterious "DJ High Top," almost everyone else has invested in Denon and Doyle -- us included.

From the start, we were advised to set aside a particularly large bag of money for the DJ. "It's the key to the whole party," we were told. Having heard of off-beat weddings whose entertainment consisted of an iPod docking station, I was skeptical. Sandra Bullock and I took a visit to Denon and Doyle's web page ( and learned that the DJ better be the key to the whole party, since he costs about as much as a year of parochial school.

At Denon and Doyle, a "low-key" party package will run you $2,216. Of course, nobody opts for the "low-key" package. Who wants a "low-key" Bar Mitzvah?

From there, packages run to $7,550. Yes, you read that right. Now you know how I felt doing our taxes.

For $7,550, you get two MCs and four "motivators." And if my wife is within earshot, don't call the motivators "hookers." You'll get in trouble.

There are variables -- number of lights, stage size. You could easily end up paying Denon and Doyle -- or rather, young and enthusiastic representatives of Denon and Doyle, five figures. And then turn around and drop another $20,000 on eighth grade, if you can.

Being the proper sheep we are, we nailed down our contract with Denon and Doyle early. Unfortunately, we could not procure the services of Patrick, Denon and Doyle's star MC. Like Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, our first choice to lead our service, Patrick was already booked. I can't remember the name of the guy we ended up getting, but he also comes armed with a stellar reputation.

We are resolutely middle-class, and so went for the middle package. With it you get a DJ, and MC and two hookers, I mean, motivators. I'm not sure if we're upgrading with the special haze effect and the uplit truss. I know we're not getting the lighted dance cubes.

Now that I've held Denon and Doyle up for ridicule, let me say that from what I've seen so far, they are worth every penny people spend on them. This isn't like at our wedding, where the DJ was some old guy in a vest who played "What I Like About You" even after I took time to make him a list of songs I didn't want playing at my wedding. What was on that list? You got it: "What I Like About You."

Their coverage is more comprehensive than any insurance plan. The MC starts his night out in front of the venue, welcoming guests as they arrive. He sets up in a spot about 50 feet past the scary Russian security guard from school that everyone hires to frighten the kids into staying in line. For a little bit more, you can get both of the scary Russian guys from school.

For my money, the motivators tend to rely on pretty base motivating tactics, that is, they shamelessly flirt with a room full of 13-year-old boys. But it works. Otherwise, you'd have a dance floor full of girls and parents and the boys would be running all over the place, finding fire extinguishers and shooting them off. Stuff like that.

The DJ team really takes over after dinner. And it's not like they just flip a switch and on comes the music. They start out with some intros, let the parents of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah do a few opening remarks, then dig deep into the Jewish celebration guidebook, pulling out the traditional "chair dance" and, of course, the Hora. That thing can snake around for several minutes if executed correctly.

Two weeks ago, MC Patrick even had poor Josh K. up there doing the YMCA dance. If I remember, Josh K. was just fine during the retreat, so maybe it wasn't as much of a stretch as I'm thinking. I know he had Jacob R. up there in full construction worker regalia, the main theme of the original Village People being completely lost through years of heavy airplay at sporting events and having evolved from iconic gay anthems to good-time family fun.

If I'm not mistaken, Denon and Doyle will even set up a photo booth for you, at a massive cost, of course.

Sometimes, I stop and think about the great power we've all given Denon and Doyle over these very important rites of passage. For the most part, they're determining the atmosphere of each party. Patrick gets to decide if it's going to be a completely upbeat party or if he's going to mix in a few slow songs, which means Patrick's at the wheel when a bunch of our kids put their hands on a member of the opposite sex for the first meaningful time.

The DJ decides what songs will be played. The family in charge has some input, I'm told, but so far I've heard the same songs played at each party. Every week, the Jawa comes home and heads straight to iTunes, where he downloads whichever song he's deemed most significant this week. After ten Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, a kind of "2009-2010 Bar Mitzvah Soundtrack" is developing. If Denon and Doyle were really on the ball, they rip that sucker onto CDs and sell them every Saturday for $10 a pop. I guarantee they'd do a bang-up business.

Despite what looks like certain ruin from income taxes, we are on board the Denon and Doyle express. Not only because it helps us keep up with the Joneses, but because from what I've seen at the parties, the Jawa is one enthusiastic dancer.

He gets that from his mother, of course.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Eight months and one day: retreat!

As I have discussed previously, I was Bar Mitzvahed on July 29, 1978. My "training" consisted of a cassette tape, given to me by Rabbi Stern, which I memorized. Whether that diminished the significance of the event, I cannot say. Until a year ago, it was the only way I knew of getting to the bimah.

I wore a rust-colored corduroy suit (in July!), with a pair of chocolate brown Nikes. That last detail my mother reminded me of a couple of days ago. As if I'd forgotten.

Beginning last year, I have learned that there are many ways to arrive at Bar Mitzvah. The way we have chosen -- the Temple Emanu-El way -- includes a full slate of classes and meetings.

Among those classes was the enigmatically-named "Rabbi Torah" class. It met once a month for several months, followed by a weekend retreat to wrap the whole thing up.

There are retreat people; and there are people like me, who loathe retreats with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. Who are thrown so far out of whack by retreats that they cannot, despite their 40-plus years on earth, figure out a graceful way to bow out of the retreat without creating enough of a scene that for the rest of the weekend people are either giving him a very wide berth or constantly needling him with little jokes about his "Friday night meltdown."

Several years ago, while accumulating student loans in the name of dual Masters' degrees, I went on my first retreat. We were only a few weeks into a Masters in Teaching program at Seattle University. The retreat was intended -- as all retreats are intended -- to provide a common experience that would help create a close-knit cohort.

I was wary going in, even before I realized that they expected us to dance and sing. Once they put that on the table, I became openly hostile. When I realized that we were forbidden from leaving the premises, I started to take on the personality of a caged animal, one forced to imitate Native American ritual dances and sing along to "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."

For the retreat's culminating project, we were encouraged to take a solo walk through the woods for inspiration. Upon our return, we would sit in a large circle, then go around and one by one share our experiences through a poem, a song, an interpretive dance, an art project. When the conch shell came to me, I delivered a scathing prose poem that posed the question, What brand of evil makes someone force another to leave their "comfort zone?"

So it was not with an entirely open mind that I entered our "Rabbi Torah" retreat at the Marconi Center, in the wilds of western Marin County. I shared my misgivings with the always-a-good-sport Sandra Bullock on the way up. "Oh, you'll be fine," she said, because most people would be fine. Sadly, I am not most people.

By then, I'd decided that I was no fan of the Rabbi, which didn't matter, he himself being his biggest fan. I'd already had it with his strict rules, his childlike insistance of sitting on the floor during class, his overly long explanations (many of which depended on personal anecdote). Even his skinny jeans and running shoes bothered me, looking somehow inappropriate on the body of a 60-something man.

Still, I told myself to stay positive. I fooled myself into thinking that all the beer and snack food we brought would be consumed during a late night hangout session, or that we could sneak away to do a little bit of exploring during the weekend. Weirdly, at no point did I think we'd be forced to dance and sing, which shows how few retreats I've been on.

I made it through settling into our spartan room, through the first session and the introduction of Martin Buber, the great Jewish thinker whose work would frame our weekend. Dinner arrived, and I thought, "This isn't so bad. Maybe we can wrap it up quickly and then have the rest of the night to hang out."

I am such a bad and naive Jew. It was Friday night: shabbat.

Months prior, the class had been divided into three groups. Each group would have the responsiblity to present a service during the weekend. Services were scheduled for Friday night, Saturday morning and Saturday evening, just before sundown. Being a bad Jew, I'd never been to Friday night services. I didn't know they lasted two-and-a-half hours.

This time, at least, they did; and I was struck by the feeling I had once before, while compiled even more student loans as a Masters' student in Creative Writing. As part of our theses, we had to teach a class on an author of our choosing. One girl was so smitten with her author that she managed to drone on well past the end of class. I sat there, getting angrier by the minute, missing minute after minute of my short story workshop, I thought, "She used to be a classmate; one of us. Now she is that really boring teacher whose class doesn't end until she says it does."

Strike me with lightning, but that's how I felt on Friday night of our retreat. 24 hours later, when the rabbi gushed about how great it was to spend a proper sabbath, I thought, "This is how we take a break from our working week?"

Relax. I know the problem is me, not him. We all have our crosses to bear.

The service ended at around 9:30. Everyone seemed exhausted, except for one person. You got it; the great and scholarly rabbi was as revved up as he'd been the moment we arrived.

For another hour we learned from the teachings of Martin Buber. Then, at 10:30, the rabbi said, "Okay, now the children can go. Parents, we're going to start..." and I stopped listening. Apparently, what I was doing was sitting there, shaking my head from side to side, because the rabbi saw me and said, "No? You don't want to do this?"

"Look," I said in what I hoped wasn't a nine-year-old's whine. "I worked today. I drove up here. We've been sitting here since before dinner. I think we put in a long enough day."

When you write it down like that, it looks perfectly rational.

"If you don't want to be here, then you can go," the rabbi said, logically. By that point, my face was glowing red and I'd realized the gravity of my error. Better I should have simply drank a bottle of wine at dinner and dozed in the back of the room, or simply disappeared after the meal. Other parents chose that route and avoided notoriety. Not me. Not when there are windmills left to tilt at.

On the way out of the room, a half-hour later, the rabbi stopped me. "I don't want you to feel you're being forced to be here," he said.

"That's exactly how I feel," I responded.

Everything after that is gravy. My reputation was cemented, making me an object of scorn and ridicule. My beloved Sandra Bullock, who I know had no idea why I couldn't just get along, tried to placate me, telling me I didn't need to go to anything I didn't want to go to.

I got better at hiding my feelings. The rabbi took special notice of me and even hugged me during one exercise, which you can bet I loved. I stood in the forest and gazed out at Tomales Bay when I was told to stand in the forest and gaze at Tomales Bay. Even though my skin was crawling as if inhabited by a thousand cockroaches, I managed a frozen smile during the dinnertime sing-alongs.

On Sunday morning, I woke late. I'd already told Sandra Bullock that I was going to skip the morning session. She wasn't happy about it, I could tell, but she accepted my decision with an admirable stoicism.

Instead of learning more about Martin Buber, I went into the Marconi Center's main room, where I found a Sunday Chronicle and a TV. I watched football for awhile. Finally, at about noon, I decided to re-join my cohort, so I strolled through the lush Marconi Center grounds.

They were easy to find. I followed the shrill sound of the rabbi's voice. Those who were there will tell you that I was a malcontent all weekend long, but I tried; really. I'd been so shocked to find that I was the only one who felt this way that I'd become embarassed. In truth, I wasn't skipping that morning session so much as I was hiding from everyone.

But when I heard that voice, I knew I was around the bend. I couldn't stand it. I started to turn back, but figured, "Hey, it's almost over. I've got to go out strong."

They were standing outside one of the conference rooms, wrapping themselves in tefillin, the small scrolls worn by observent Jews during services. They were all having a great time. The rabbi was bouncing from group to group, shouting encouragement, his running shoes kicking up small puffs of dust on the ground.

I can't quite describe the feeling that voice gave me. In it was the culmination of the entire weekend -- and all retreats I'd gone on before. It was a voice forcing me to do things I didn't want to do; It was a voice telling me I had to stay here and was not permitted to leave. It was a voice telling me to be a good sport, to sing, to dance, to leave my "comfort zone." It hit me like the air horn of an 18-wheeler, almost knocking me back into the trees.

But I swallowed it and moved forward into the gale. I found my family and did what I hoped was a decent impersonation of someone for whom the slightest inconvenience isn't a traumatic, life-changing event. To what degree I succeeded you'll have to find out from the people who were there. Between you and me, I don't think I did such a great job.

Looking back, all of this could have been avoided had I trusted myself. I knew exactly how I was going to react: I hate retreats. They make me feel trapped. I should have explained this to Sandra Bullock and the Jawa, and insisted they go alone. No matter how angry they would have gotten, in the end, everyone would have been happier, except for that guy Mike, who thought my tantrums were hilarious.

But you know, at least this time they didn't get me to dance. No way.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Eight months and two days: the claws come out.

Last year, there was a bully.

Couple of things here: first, calling him a "bully" is soft-pedaling it. The kid was a sociopath, I'm pretty sure. Second, he arrived in second grade, then almost immediately set about making my child's (and by extension, Sandra Bullock's and my) life miserable. It took four years for the situation to come to a full boil.

There were incidents along the way. A school Sukkot dinner was interrupted for the Jawa and this awful kid to square off in the shadow of the play structure. In retrospect, I think that was the moment when the bully decided to put his entire demented focus on my child; they say that the way to defeat a bully is to stand up to him. In this case, I think standing up to him was the trigger.

Not that he left other kids alone. We parents shared various stories with each other, and I know of at least three other kids who lived in fear of this punk, plus one more whose parents wished he lived in fear of him. Sophie's choice, in this case, was to live in fear or get carried along in a wake of delinquent behavior.

In third grade, Sandra Bullock and I attempted to coach the uncoachable. The bully joined our hapless co-ed YMCA basketball team, quickly showing us that the rest of our kids were angels by comparison. Not once during that season did he respond to something we said. He either ignored us or argued with us.

That year, I volunteered to give the kids a "homework room" in the time between school and basketball practice. It would have been a good idea, if not for the bully. No homework was completed. As a cherry on top, his mother usually showed up late to pick him up, if at all. She was very busy, as it turned out, working on her Phd. in Child Development.


On the last day of fifth grade, we had a dance party for the kids, a "welcome to middle school" type of deal. Up until the day of the event, we thought we'd dodged the bullet. Reports from school said that the bully was ridiculing the party at every opportunity. Then he found out everyone else was coming. He called us the day of the party, asking to come. Unfortunately, we said yes. I swear to all of you that this kid couldn't go five minutes without doing something -- throwing food, running down the street, dragging other kids into his great sucking abyss of bad behavior. A real buzzkill, this kid.

Last year, for some reason, the bully decided to ratchet up his reign of terror on my child. That my child has a reputation for not politely shrinking away from conflict may have had something to do with it. Whatever the reasons, not a week passed without something happening. One week, he pushed the Jawa into a locker. The next week, he made the Jawa's best friend cry during P.E. The next he was mixing it up with the Russians, which is a bad idea. Those guys are scrappy.

Every week, at least once, the Jawa would come home loaded for bear. A massive blow-up over something, anything would follow. About two hours into the confrontation, we'd realize that it had something to do with something the bully did to him during school that day. "Goodnight" became nightly layman counseling sessions instead. He'd obsess over things he could say to the bully to shut him up once and for all, too young and naive to know that such a phrase did not exist.

I'm not sure what it took to spur us into action, but eventually, the aggregate total of aggravation inspired us and we decided to ratchet up the pressure. Trips to the principal's office were no good, because the kid simply wouldn't show up. Someone suggested we meet with his parents.

Now let me tell you why that wasn't a good idea. By the time a (much larger) kid has verbally and physically harassed your kid for four years, you don't really care much about that kid's well-being. You don't want to help the parents work things out, you don't want your kid to learn to get along with the other kid, you don't think of the other kid's actions as a "cry for help." By now, you've tried all of the institutional strategies the school has suggested. "Radical kindness" didn't work. Basically, and I am embarassed to say this, you just want to haul off and hit him.

That's the old school, which earns you the pity and disdain of your school community, so you try to keep it to yourself, with varying degrees of success.

And then, finally, the bully slipped. He'd been pretty careful to go just far enough to earn a one-day suspension or a no-show trip to the principal. This time, though, he forgot.

I went to pick up the Jawa at school one day. He was pretty shaken up. After some confrontational back-and-forth between us, I got him to spill the beans: the bully had told one of the Jawa's crew that he "wants to bring a knife to school to stab (him)."

Now, if you'd like to see a school with a touchy-feely reputation suddenly become as hard as Bruce Lee, go tell the principal that someone has threatened to stab your kid. The game was up.

They let him finish out the year, giving him time to concoct a story in which he'd left the school by choice, which is fine and matched his flights of fancy regarding his previous suspensions, for which his parents had apparently rewarded him with ice cream and trips to the mall. We just wanted him out of there.

I'm not kidding. Last year we couldn't go a day in our house without this kid's name coming up.

The reason why I bring all of this up is because it never occurred to us that other people -- people who haven't been targeted for terror by the class psycho -- would invite him to their Bar Mitzvahs.

About a month ago, we'd just settled into our seats at Temple Beth Sholom when who should come waltzing into the room but our nemesis himself. He was his usual self, moving from chair to chair, disrupting things, dragging whoever was near into his "who cares about you?" world.

Which is neither here nor there. Obviously, the kid is what he is. Call his actions a "cry for help" or whatever else you want. Consider, quite reasonably, that what he's doing is probably attempt at gaining the attention he's not getting from his over-committed mother. Like I said, I wish I was a good enough person to see it that way. I'm not.

All I cared about was not putting my Jawa in the line of fire again. Not only that, but as I sat there, steaming, I realized that I was probably as freaked out by this kid as the Jawa was. Nothing pretty about that at all.

No way could I focus on the Bat Mitzvah in front of me. All I was doing was waiting for this kid to do something so I could jump on him. I could only imagine what the Jawa was thinking, but I'm pretty sure I saw his shoulders tense up when his worst nightmare entered the room.

The way I saw it, we had only one option. I told the Jawa he didn't have to go to the party if the bad kid was going to be there. Visibly shaken, we went home.

Some people have since questioned our decision,and I can see where they're coming from. "What are you going to do the next time?" I was asked. My answer was that we'd keep avoiding the problem, which I know was pretty lame. In a perfect world, my Jawa and I would find a way to get past our issues with this kid and be better for it.

It's a difficult lesson, but I think there are some situations that are just unsalvageable. No way after all that this kid has put my son through will he ever be anything more to us than a singularly unpleasant roadblock to be avoided at all costs. There will be no playdate where everyone shakes hands and moves on. Sometimes that doesn't happen.

All of this is a long way of saying "Thank you" to the Beth Sholom family who took the time and initiative to call and tell us that the bully was not invited to their Bat Mitzvah. "He's a member of Beth Sholom, so I can't say if he won't show up to the ceremony, but he's not invited to the party," they said.

I am overwhelmed with relief, self-disgust, embarassment and thankfulness. We'd already RSVP'ed "no." That's where it is in our house. No more discussing, no working things out. Just "no."

Feel free to add this to the long list of parental failures I have managed to accumulate over the past 12 years. I should know better. But sometimes, even when you should know better, you leave the high road for someone else.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Eight months and three days: creeping adolescence

I will be 45 years old on my next birthday, too old to be the youngest at anything you'd want to be the youngest at. Possibly as an unexpected perk of my lack of career, I maintain a fairly youthful image. I don't drive a minivan. I don't wear Facconable shirts or sport white leather tennis shoes on the weekends, and my CD collection is not entirely made up of classic rock.

On the outside, at least, despite my lack of hair, I am not an old 44. On the inside, however, I'm closer to 70. I've been taking pills for high blood pressure since I was 35, for cholesterol since I was 40. I go to the gym at least twice a week and don't eat meat; the heart disease gods don't seem to care.

Armed with this knowledge, I have to wonder how many more experiences like last night I can handle. Given the right set of circumstances, a poorly behaved 12-year-old Jawa can defeat even the strongest beta-blockers and cholesterol reducers. I was once a poorly behaved 12-year-old, and yet I can't spot the triggers before they occur.

I once taught high school. During grad school, there was a segment where the education faculty did their best to convince us to find our inner middle school calling. "No way," I said at the time. "I don't like middle schoolers." Consider last night a confirmation of that.

It could have been great. We had two hours to kill before the 7:55 showing of Avatar. Having exhausted our primary dining options (too crowded), we settled on Val's, an Italian place in Daly City. Approximately 93% of all Yelp reviews of Val's mentioned "Goodfellas," so I knew I'd like it.

And I did like it, or rather, I would have, had I not spent the entire meal speaking in an angrily compressed voice at the alien who's inhabited my child's body.

He slouched. He grabbed at food before the waiter could set it on the table. He put a baseball cap on and pulled it over his eyes. We tried to discuss our desire that he add an extracurricular activity next semester, only to be treated as if we'd asked him to eat nails. I sat there in shock.

Now I know EXACTLY WHAT'S GOING ON. Were I an anthropologist, instead of a flawed human being, I would have been fascinated by his behavior. No matter who the child is -- and I happen to think my child is pretty special -- they will be possessed by the demonic teen. The demonic teen doesn't like people who get in the way. Itwill argue with you, talk to you like your an idiot, shake its head sadly at the utter foolishness spewing forth from your mouth, the outrageously irrational demands you seem to take sadistic joy in making.

I should understand. I was a demonically-possessed 12-year-old once. Last night, when I haplessly siad, "That mouth of yours is going to get you in trouble," I knew I was speaking a line directly lifted from my own mother and father. And they were right; that mouth of mine did get me in trouble and continues to get me in trouble and I would love it if I could somehow help my child avoid the lifelong heartache that comes from not knowing when to shut up. And yet, I am powerless.

I exhausted my arsenal. My quiver of parenting weapons was empty before the entrees arrived. So instead of enjoying the time warp ambiance of Val's, I ate in bitter silence, pathetically hoping that if the kid wouldn't respond to scoldings, maybe he could be made to feel guilty for having ruined his father's meal.

No dice.

How I would have loved to have eaten the Fandango tickets and said, "Okay, no movie, then," but all that would have done was get Sandra Bullock mad at me and ensure that the demonic teen would follow us home. But there are consequences and all that; I would have liked to at least get that point across. I'm not sure what that would have accomplished in the long run.

It seems that each incident is self-contained, and nothing learned from one can be applied to the next. You just have to put your head down, whisper, "This too shall pass" to yourself and hope you can handle it better the next time.

So I'm used to this, settled into my smoldering, angry place, and we drive to the movie theater, also in Daly City, and I'm distant and polite, a tactic I learned from my wife, who taught me not to always drive a point into the ground. The child is chattering on obliviously in the back seat, perfectly happy to have a two-way conversation with his mother.

We park and start walking to the theater. Halfway there, he walks up to me and absently puts his arm through mine. This is the part where I walk up to Sandra Bullock and say, quietly, "I'm not going to make it to high school graduation."

"Yes, you will," she says.

My Jawa and I walk arm-and-arm into the Century 20 Theaters. We race up to the second floor, him on the escalator, me on the stairs. Suddenly, he has transformed back into the lovable, thoughtful child who rewrote the rules to my life on August 3, 1997. I have no option other than the let my anger, however fully-realized and gloriously toxic, float away.

To celebrate, the three of us ate Milk Duds and popcorn and made deadpan faces from behind our 3D glasses. Mine looked especially sharp, as I was wearing them over my other glasses.

Three hours later, we knew all about James Cameron's attitudes toward the U.S. military, U.S. military intervention, the treatment of indigenous cultures and the irreperable damage capitalism can do to the soul. All of it is bad.

I can take or leave "Avatar," and I hear the everyone who works for James Cameron hates him. Besides, nothing he showed me on a movie screen left me nearly as dazzled and confused as the effortlessly unpredictable mood changes of a 12-year-old who shares my DNA.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Eight months and four days: the center cannot hold.

I just woke up. I was downstairs, watching the San Diego Chargers' 2010 Super Bowl hopes evaporate, so I was surprised to find, upon entering the kitchen, a full-size mockup of our Bar Mitzvah party centerpieces sitting on the kitchen island.

It's all there: the thin glass vase that we were so lucky to find at Michael's craft store earlier today -- to be truthful, I didn't find it, because I was too busy being mesmerized by the radically overweight woman in the stretch pants wearing the St. Patrick's Day green bowler with attached red braids.

We spent $82 at Michael's craft store, most if not all of it on Bar Mitzvah items. During checkout, as she expertly slid the Visa card through the machine, my wife informed me that, "These items are no accounted for in our budget." So that $82 is coming from somewhere else, food, clothing, shelter, one of those luxuries.

Whatever I think of the money spent, I have to admit that the mockup centerpiece is looking pretty good. She's got the thin, tall rectangular vase up there in the middle with one Godzilla movie poster stuck to either side. They're cool posters, with Japanese stuff written on them, but smaller than our original planned 8.5 x 11 size, which is a darn good thing, since 100 8.5 x 11 stickers cost $42.

When asked, Sandra Bullock explained that the smaller size allows viewers to see the dark rocks she placed in the vase. I looked; she's telling the truth. There is a layer of rocks in there.

From there explodes several tall sticks of bamboo, with a smaller stick tilted toward the side, fishing pole-style. To drive the point home, this stick actually has a small paper fish attached to it, hanging from a string.

I would tell you more, but Sandra Bullock just angrily told me, "Don't write about the centerpiece! That will spoil the surprise!"

So you're just going to have to guess at the rest of it. All I will tell you is that there is a 75% chance it will include individual fortune cookies for all guests.

Last night, we drive to Fisherman's Wharf, where the Jawa would be attending the Bat Mitzvah party of a classmate with connections. Their centerpieces, we later learned, extended all the way to the ceiling. They had palm trees, in keeping with their tropical theme.

We drove through the rain down the Embarcadero which, for those unfamiliar with San Francisco geography, runs along the eastern waterfront, under the Bay Bridge, past the financial district before turning inland at Fisherman's Wharf. Here on the Embarcadero is where we are urging all of our out-of-town guests to stay, at the Hyatt Regency, the one with the glass elevators that figured so prominently not only in Mel Brooks' "High Anxiety," but also in my and my Jawa's collective imaginations. For almost ten years now, the Jawa and I have taken periodic trips to the Hyatt Regency so we can ride on the glass elevators.

The Hyatt is crazy convenient for out-of-towners, seeing as they can land at the airport, get on BART and emerge directly in front of the hotel without having to rent a car, change trains or do much of anything other than sit there and protect their luggage from anyone standing too close.

On Friday, before our Bar Mitzvah, a select group of family members will be invited (forced) to attend services with us at Temple Emanu-el. Afterwards, we will all be meeting for dinner. Until last week, we'd figured on using the same restaurant for this dinner as Josh K., a place close to -- but not within walking distance of -- temple Emanu-el. Everyone would load up into the bus we'd rented, which would deposit them at the restaurant, then wait patiently to return us to the hotel. Us. We'll be staying at the hotel, too.

Last week, though, we decided that while it provided the delicious fare, Bella restaurant did not have a private room, which we would like to have. "You know," added my bride, "we could save a lot of money by finding a place near the hotel. That way the bus could just drop us at the restaurant and leave."

I quickly learned that whatever cost benefits we might receive from this new arrangement would be quickly erased by the added cost of downtown restaurants. Most options had earned at least three local stars, some even a Michelin star or two. All cost the equivalent of a year's tuition at a state school for our party of 24. While the novelty of dining at the once-trendy Aqua might be fierce, the final bill might prove to be so much that I would be forced to wash dishes in the restaurant kitchen, where I toiled as a backwaiter under soon-to-be reknown chef Michael Mina in 1992.

Driving through the rain down the Embarcadero, though, at once we all spotted the green neon sign of Sinbad's, the type of seafood restaurant that Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda might have dined at in 1968. "That's what I want," said the Jawa from the rear seat, where he was taking his gremlin-like responsiblities very seriously. "I don't like fancy."

Which is funny. As I was reminded of later that night, my wife and I don't have alot in common. She would like to wake up early on Saturday and go to the gym together. I'd like to stay up late Friday in a dark bar together. Despite that, however, we are in weird agreement on the collective level of elegance we prefer; that is, either quirky retro-kitsch elegance, or none. Apparently, our Jawa is right there on board with us. He doesn't like fancy. His parents had a kegger for their 40th birthday party and rode off from their wedding ceremony on a borrowed 1967 Triumph Bonneville. Maybe he is my son, after all.

Right now, I am browsing the web site for Sinbad's, which is one block from the Hyatt Regency, hanging over the bay. It's so old-school, it's almost Alioto's. The overall cost is reasonable, so expect to see 24 of my relatives walking across the Embarcadero next August 20, on their way back to the hotel from Shabbat evening dinner.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Eight months and six days: choosing a venue

Part of the comprehensive Temple Emanu-el Bar Mitzvah training calls for the Bar Mitzvah boy and family to attend a minimum number of B'Nai Mitzvot in the year leading up to their own celebration. I can't remember what the number was, but it's more than five.

Given that we are Jews, and San Francisco Jews at that, plenty of people we know chose to take this particular edict as more of a suggestion than a requirement. Not us. There are a few things you can say about my bride, my child and I: we love a party, we show up on time, and we honor our commitments.

There are two sactuaries at Temple Emanu-el, as befitting a massive mega-synogogue that employs multiple rabbis. This is good, because it allows for two B'Nai Mitzvot each weekend. Otherwise, there'd be a terrible backlog of Jewish teens aching to enter adulthood with nary an alter at which to do so.

To add another layer of complication, students at Brandeis Hillel Day School must schedule out their events two years in advance. Since everyone is required (again, another "suggestion," I've since learned) to attend each other's Bar and Bat Mitzvot, we must make schedule out well in advance, so as not to step on each other's toes.

On the day we sat down at the temple to schedule our Bar Mitzvah date, we had so far attended one event at the temple. We were total rookies. I can't remember what the event was for, but it took place in the smaller, more intimate Martin-Meyer Sanctuary, not the imposing, church-like Main Sanctuary.

We would later learn that approximately 85% of the kids in the Jawa's class had chosen to hold their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs in the Martin-Meyer Sanctuary. At the time, all I knew was that the Martin-Meyer Sanctuary seemed to be the physical embodiment of why I'd never joined a temple as an adult. My response to it was visceral, negative and total.

Backtrack with me a bit, here -- I am a Jew, born a Jew, circumsized a Jew, raised a Jew. And the truth of being a Jew is that you can run, but you can't hide. I could have dyed my hair blonde and drank endless seas of gin and tonics, Hitler wouldn't have cared. Still a Jew. You put me in a room full of Jews, yes, I am one of them.

If you were to add up all the time I've spent in religious settings, though, you'd find that since I was eighteen, actually, since I started dating non-Jews (and they have all been non-Jews), I've spent more time in other people's houses of worship than my own. Consider the impact of four years at a Jesuit university (Santa Clara, the name famously misplaced by my grandmother when my Great Neck cousins asked her where I went to school), plus another year of grad school at another Jesuit University, followed by two years of teaching at a Catholic high school, and I'm probably as much a Jewsuit as I am a Jew.

Or so I think. Remember, you can run but you can't hide. Raised Jewish, trained Catholic, full of guilt, as the saying goes.

A couple of times during my fledgeling years, I let girls talk me into going to religious events. Once in high school, I went to a Campus Crusade pizza night because I figured all the hot chicks would be there. I was correct. None of them were looking for a swarthy heathen non-believer that night, though.

In 1990, my then-girlfriend told me I had to attend church with her if we were to have any kind of future. It was one of those non-denominational mega-church outfits, with the easy-listening rock music, the bright-eyed, enthusiastic pastor and a women doing sign language for the hearing impaired. I looked over at my precious girlfriend, whose eyes were shut in rapture, her arms held straight up to the sky, and thought, "We. Are. Doomed."

And we were.

Two years ago, we were treated at Martin-Meyer to what I thought figured was the San Francisco Jewish version of a lite rock Christian service. Being Jews, we had hippies where they had clean-cut preppy blondes. Some guy with a ponytail, playing the guitar, walking up and down the center aisle and singing folky versions of prayers to greet us as we entered the room.

I grew up thinking that being Jewish meant resenting the intrusion of any religion, including my own. That ponytail guy brought out the most base, self-loathing feeling of "otherness." My first response was to think, "Geez, this guy better shut up. What if someone hears?

This not being Nazi Germany, we were fine. The singing, the dancing, all of that, though? Not for me. I left convinced I would prefer an old-style religious experience, with the old men mumbling and swaying, the rabbi bringing down an Old Testament-style angry God kind of sermon. Must be the latent Catholic in me; Hebrew, Latin, what's the difference?

Based on this experience, and based on the fact that our Bar Mitzvah guest list would include a disproportionately high percentage of people who are not Jewish, including many who've never had much exposure to the Chosen People, we decided to opt for the main sanctuary. "It's more church-like," explained Sandra Bullock to anyone who asked.

Then the Bar Mitzvahs started. Week after week, we sat in Martin-Meyer. Weirdly, the ponytail guy never returned. I got used to the silver-haired hippie cantor and her bongo-playing sidekick. The folky mandolin playing I found soothing. My wife and I began to appreciate the intimacy of the room. In the Main Sancturary, you have to climb a big flight of stairs to get to the Torah. Here, it was only a couple of steps up.

The big room comes with a choir and an organ, which suddenly seemed dull and outdated. The big room cantor is operatic. No one sings along, for fear of butchering her beautifully-enunciated lines. And the room is enormous. Our little Bar Mitzvah party might get swallowed up by its enormity.

About three months in, we changed our minds. We wanted the Martin-Meyer. So we went to the woman in charge of such things and asked if we could move.

No dice. It's already booked for another Bar Mitzvah that day. Besides, through this whole thing, even as he watched most of his classmates opt for the groovier Martin-Meyer experience, the Jawa has steafastly insisted he prefers the Main Sanctuary. And, as his mother still points out, though now more to convince herself than anyone else, "It's more churchy. It'll be more comfortable for some of our guests."

Did we make the time-honored mistake of assuming that God was more likely to show up in a room more formally designed for His grand presence? Was it yet another case of Jewish self-loathing on my part? Did we cave, assuming the worst about our non-Jewish guests, rather than inviting them to immerse themselves in modern Reformed Jewish culture?

Whatever the reason, we are sticking with the Main Sanctuary, at the risk of it intimidating our Jewish guests and causing intense flashback boredom to our guests raised in The Church. In case of either occurance, here's a tip: there are 108 lights in the Main Sanctuary. Count then.