Wednesday, March 31, 2010

144 days to Bar Mitzvah: teenagers choosing friends

You can pick your friends but you can't pick your family. You can't pick your child's friends, nor can you pick his nose, though you can lick your finger and wipe it on his face to get rid of smeared-on chocolate until he's about four. After that, he'll get embarassed and possibly grossed-out.

Even if the child in question has a penchant for using the bathroom with the door wide open long past the age where decorum demands that it close.

I think we lost the ability to pre-chose our child's friends right about the time our playdate role evolved from emcee to caterer. Somewhere around that time we realized with sadness and horror that we could no longer just toss our child into a any room full of similarly-aged children and assume he'd have fun.

If they time it right, new parents can have it easy: when the Jawa was born, any worries we had about becoming outcasts quickly dissolved when Flush Puppy came to our apartment to tell us that now she was pregnant. For the first two years of his life, then, the Jawa had a built-in best friend, assuring his parents of quality time with adults they'd hand-picked as core members of their posse years before.

Those first few years were gravy. When you're a new parent, anyone who is also a new parent is instantly your friend. Any gaps in worldviews or life experiences were instantly bridged by the common factor of parenthood.

Even in preschool, which the Jawa entered upon arriving in San Francisco after several tense weeks of jockeying to get him into the "right" preschool, because, naturally, the right preschool would begin a cycle that ends with him triumphantly holding a Harvard diploma aloft on graduation day, we still managed to find ways to guarantee his inner circle matched ours.

Those were glorious days of Sunday brunches and long dinner potlucks, of shared pictures showing handsome, happy families in total sync. It was a halcyon time, ready-made for slide shows and photo albums. You can't tell me that the Jawa suffered by our social machinations. Almost a decade later, he's reserved a seat at his Bar Mitzvah table for at least one of his old preschool chums, now a text buddy in permanent glorious exile in Wellesley, Massachusetts. He also still emails his original best friend in Seattle, casually asking about her love life and offering tips on what to wear to a Bar Mitzvah.

The first signs that you have lost control come not in kindergarten but in first grade. Everyone's still in shock that first year. Parents arrive at the beginning of the school day and hang around for fifteen minutes after the bell has rung. We're all five years into being parents, so the shock hasn't yet worn off. We're still looking for life rings to keep our heads above water.

Kindergarten seemed like an extension of preschool. We pored over our new cohort, choosing from a smorgasbord of potential new friends. Whoever we chose to integrate into our lives came with their own five-year-olds, built-in best friends for our Jawa. Boys, girls, it didn't matter. Everyone got along.

And then came first grade and with it the first stirrings of independence. Sure, we were still experimenting in social engineering, but about halfway through the year we began to notice that our multi-family potlucks weren't always a ball of fun for the kids. You couldn't just throw them all together and expect the best anymore. They all had their own interests, and wer starting to develop their own friendships.

We knew things were changing when he refused to bring his toys to the home of friends who had (younger) twin boys. "They'll chew on them," he said, simply.

It's not that we worried too deeply about the Jawa's ability to make friends. It was more that we'd really enjoyed having his friends be the children of our friends. This new order -- where the Jawa appears ten minutes before our scheduled dinner date and announces that our friends' kids are too young (or are girls) and he's going to be bored -- well, that's a pretty big monkey wrench thrown into a previously smoothly-running operation.

And then there was the added complication of watching him butt heads with kids who were once his friends but, for whatever reason, no longer shared that warm vibe. Or kids whose friendship, on some level, drove the Jawa insane. Some years, I will admit, there were whispered asides to school counselors, suggesting that the Jawa might be more likely to thrive were he not in the same class as certain boys.

On the flip side, we stood on the sidelines and watched as he didn't become friends with kids we really liked, or kids whose parents we really liked. For a few years, we would accept or extend dinner invitations and hold our breath that the kids would find a way to pass the evening together, even though they ran in different crowds at school.

Eight years at the same school makes for a dazzling anthropologic study. That's enough time for kids to basically run through the entire class roster, being casual acquaintences for years then suddenly exploding into intense friendship for a month before drifting apart again.

I never had to address that sort of situation. We moved across the country right about the time I started figuring that, although we'd been hanging out since infancy, I didn't have a lot in common with David Brauer. By the time we got to California, the parental social spell was shattered and I was on my own. Interactions between parents were very limited.

Today, it is clearly established that we have no power over the Jawa's social life, which doesn't mean we don't gnash our teeth from the sidelines. The thousands of times I have been called shallow and pointedly corrected by well-meaning contemporaries for worrying about my son's social standing have done nothing to ease my concern. Having been both an outcast and an insider, I know how much the latter kicks the former's butt. Soundly.

On Monday, we attended a seder dinner hosted by a family we've lately been hanging out with. By "we" I mean Sandra Bullock and I. Their son doesn't travel in the same circles as ours, which secretly breaks our collective hearts because we really like their son.

On Monday, arrived at the tail end of a playdate. The Jawa was walking into a situation where two good friends -- guys he knows from school but doesn't eat lunch with, play sports with, get in trouble in class with -- had been hanging out all day, speaking in the brand of teenage boy shorthand particular to close friends. I was worried. Would the Jawa try to impress them with a barrage of Disneyland trivia, only to be rebuffed? Would he nervously expound on the design features of duct tape wallets?

Worse yet, would he sit there, sullen and impatient, waiting for the night to end?

I worry too much. He was fine. These kids, after all, have known each other for longer than they have not. Even the most distant of them have managed to accumulate a few shared experiences since kindergarten.

This may be an outsider's opinion, but I think Brandeis Hillel Day School is fairly clique-free. At least among the boys. I haven't had the slightest idea of what goes on in Girl World since about third grade. Among the boys, at least, it works. You can show up as the third wheel at someone's Passover seder and still have a good time.

And thank you, God, for inventing the Wii.

Next comes high school and an entire roster of new friends whose parents will probably never be anything more than an idling car, a benchmark and, eyes squeezed shut blocking our reality, a post-curfew phone call or designated driver ride home. The big picture is equal parts freedom and losing control.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

145 days to Bar Mitzvah: stealing time

Sometimes I like to point out the absurdity in the fact that, after spending much of my childhood standing bored out of my skull in military-themed hobby shops, I now spend much of my adulthood standing bored out of my skull in fantasy-themed hobby shops (sometimes also called "geek stores"). When, I wonder, do I get to be the one who is not bored out of his skull?

Today, the second day of Spring Break, I was reminded that the former is only a partial memory. The part I'm leaving out is what makes the latter bearable.

From about 1976, when we moved to California, until about 1980, when I settled fully into the teenage agenda, I spent a significant number of Saturdays or Sundays alone with my father. The premise was always "going to the hobby shop." Someone early on must have suggested that it would be nice to bring me along, seeing as from Monday to Friday my dad was mostly in Jack Arnold mode, i.e. "How was work, Jack?" "Work's work."

The experience had been totally different in Pennsylvania. The hobby shop was within walking distance of our house. I don't have many memories of the hobby shop. I think while Dad browsed, I was a few doors away at Davis' Variety Store, the center of my childhood life, looking at Richie Rich comic books with my sister.

Have you ever been to a hobby shop? Am I even calling it by its proper name? Before the Jawa introduced me to the geek genre, I thought they were all the same: very quiet, kind of dusty, full of scale models and strategic military board games, the front counter manned by a guy usually around my dad's age or older who had plenty of time to stand there, smoke cigarettes and talk. I assume they would talk about hobby stuff, though I seldom stuck around to hear the conversation. Instead, I wandered through the store, trying in vain to find something interesting.

I liked Brookhurst Hobbies, in Buena Park, because it had a glass case full of dioramas -- war scenes, of course. There was one on Tustin Avenue that also carried model trains, a particular strain of hobby my dad never got into.

The worst of them was a place called Military Hobbies which, if I remember correctly, was on La Palma in Anaheim. Military Hobbies had no dioramas, and the guy at the counter was austere and strange. But it had the best selection of model airplane kits and military-themed hobby magazines.

Ironically, by the time we moved to California, my dad was well past his model-building prime. In Pennsylvania, his hobby was so intense that every upgrade performed on our house included some kind of hobby-related feature: the new family room had a table that came out of the wall, on which you could assemble and paint model airplanes. Downstairs was the "hobby room," its walls lined with plexiglas shelves, upon which sat scores of historically accurate model planes. A large concave table filled with kitty litter sat in the middle of the room. On it, my dad would recreate specific World War II battles, changing each side's strategies to see how they might have turned out.

Compared to that, his habit post-move barely qualifies as a hobby. But he still liked to go to the stores, buying the military magazines and talking shop while I hid out among the store inventory.

All of those years, I thought I was going along so I could get ice cream. That was the big draw. I knew he'd get me ice cream, unless we went early; then we'd get donuts. At the time, I figured it was a fair trade: a couple of hours of abject boredom in exchange for ice cream or donuts. I was a kid; the real reason I went along didn't occur to me until many years later.

I've been gone from Orange County for over 20 years, and could easily get lost if you put me in the middle of, say, Stanton and told me to find my way home. For awhile there, though, I knew every corner of the place, because in addition to visiting hobby shops and buying ice cream, my dad and I spent every weekend driving aimlessly around to see what we could find.

Sometimes we found out that Anaheim did, indeed, have a downtown. One time we located that Carvel franchise we'd heard had opened in Fountain Valley. Occasionally we ended up at the beach, but most of the time we just drove around, always finding new things, which is why I can't take seriously anyone who dismisses Orange County with the wave of a cultured hand. It may not be Paris, but it kept my dad and I interested for many a Saturday.

It was almost always my dad and I. Very rarely did one of my sisters come along. And it's not like he was going out of his way or doing anything he wouldn't have been doing on a Saturday anyway; but he took me along.

Now the roles have changed. While standing in a hobby shop of any kind is still akin to waterboarding, I am now the guy who decides if we get ice cream or not, where we might explore, what time we will be home.

The Jawa's a tougher sell than I was. Today I practically had to beg him to get out from in front of the computer and go check out this hot dog place on Howard Street. It's Spring Break, which he has envisioned spending in front of his PC, sharpening his Roller Coaster Tycoon II skills until leaving for my sister's, and Disneyland, on Wednesday. So it took a little nudge, but I got him out of the house.

We had hot dogs. Mine was made out of tofu. He only ate half of his, and some onion rings. We talked about Disneyland the entire time. But I could tell. We have some epic battles, he and I. Call me sentimental and apologies to Paul Anka, but I could tell, today at lunch, that he was living the times of his life. Sometimes, you know, the kid is just not cool enough to play the disinterested teen.

You can't consciously create memories; they just happen. But you can put yourself in a position where the little things that stick with you are more likely to occur. You can look back at the things that stand out decades later and say, "Now that I'm on the other side of this set-up, what can I do to add a little meaning to this otherwise mundane day?"

Because as soon as you blink, the window closes. The Jawa just burst into the room and announced that there are now 1,378 people visiting the (virtual) amusement park he created on Roller Coaster Tycoon. He'll be there for the rest of the day, probably, while I sit here typing. And sooner than I think, I'll be Harry Chapin, begging him for a few minutes of his time.

The fake hot dog and fries I ate for lunch today aren't going to do me any favors, health-wise, but in the big picture, they were worth it. And the dorks who work at geek stores are much more interesting than the guy at Military Hobbies.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

147 days to Bar Mitzvah: getting all reflective

Though his resume wouldn't show it, my grandfather was a great man. If your worldview involves checklists and fame, his was a pretty small life: absolutely middle-class, he toiled away for decades at jobs he didn't particularly like. In 1976, my grandmother told him they were moving west, to follow their kids and grandchildren. He was 58.

He was an old-timer, a member of Tom Brokaw's "greatest generation," the demo of Jews who bridged the gap between their parents' old world and their children's new one. He was a Chrysler man until my dad talking him into buying a Honda Accord. From that point forward, he and my grandmother owned Hondas. She still has their last one, a blue Element with one of the back seats removed to make room for her electric scooter.

When he was 16, having graduated from high school early, my grandfather spent some time on Coney Island, lifting weights on the beach. There he met my grandmother, who was a year younger. By the time he died, last October, they'd been married for 74 years. A little over a year ago he told me that in 74 years, they'd never spent more than two days apart.

By the time I sold their house in Sacramento, they'd been in California for 33 years, but they were still New Yorkers. In retirement, my grandfather had become known for endearing quirkiness. He was the guy going around with a can of paint to cover up graffitti. Sometimes, he took walks carrying a big stick. He used the stick to knock acorns out of trees.

I don't have much memory of him working. There's a flash of him sitting in their living room in Massapequa, New York, wearing reading glasses and using an old-fashioned adding machine, watching the paper unroll further every time he tallied something up. We heard stories -- right up until this past year -- of the ferocity of his temper when my dad was a kid. I never saw it that I can remember, even though one of our most treasured family stories involves him yelling at a three-year-old me, then me responding, "You say that to me?"

No, by the time my sisters and I showed up, he had mellowed. He was not a salty old guy but rather a sentimental one, whose every interaction created a lasting relationship. He seldom paid full price when he got pizza at that place on Coloma Street. They never asked him to.

We moved to San Francisco in part to have a chance to spend more time with my grandparents. I didn't want to end up like Kathleen Turner in "Peggy Sue Got Married," traveling through time in the hopes of getting one more day with my grandparents. We got ten extra years with them. Over the past decade, we went to Sacramento about once every two months. They came to the Jawa's school "Grandparents and Special Friends Day" twice.

He was one of the most reflective people I've ever known. When I was a little kid, living in Pennsylvania, we took walks out into the countryside. He never talked down to me, not even then. He'd tell me about the pratfalls that could await you as you grew up, and that some day, girls would be more important to me than cars or even baseball.

In the past decade, he got even more reflective. He hated being old and felt betrayed by his body. "It's not right," he'd say, "that they let you live into your 90s but don't give you a body that'll hold up."

Once, when I was about 12, he was messing with an outlet in the living room of my parents' house. Suddenly, waist-high flames shot out of the outlet. He paused, looked at my father and I, and said, "You know, that really burns my butt."

Whenever we visited Sacramento, my grandfather spent his time doing two things: getting stuff for us and sitting in one of the white living room chairs, beaming. One time, we had the first grade-aged Jawa demonstrate his newly-learned Hebrew skills. When I looked over at my grandfather, he was crying.

Because that's what he did. He was a hot-blooded Romanian, and he wore his emotions on his sleeve. After every visit, he'd walk out with us to their driveway, and then watch us drive away.

Eventually, Sandra Bullock reminded me that we should be using these visits to help my grandparents with errands and chores. Family members thought they should move to a retirement home, but they were having none of it. So we'd go to Sacramento, and I'd mow the lawn, help them gas up the Element. One time, my grandfather, the Jawa and I went to Costco and helped him pick out a new LCD television. But not until after the Jawa joined him on a parade lap of Costco, where they tried every food sample offered.

The end wasn't good. Last May, he tripped over his new sandals and broke his hip. The guy who came out of surgery wasn't the same.

He got "hazy," as my grandmother said. Sometimes he thought we were on a cruise. Many times, he thought we were in the military. "That's Jack," he told me once, while we were visiting him in the third assisted living facility in two months, pointing out an old guy who was wandering around the lobby. "He's with our outfit."

Last summer, I went to Sacramento once a week. He was always overjoyed to see me and always cried when I left. My grandmother was always there with him, except for times when I'd take her to do some of the things she'd never had to do -- put gas in the car, get money out of the ATM, check the mailbox.

Sometimes, you'd get a sense that he was still in there, somewhere. We took Sandra Bullock and my mom to see him at this terrible place, a private house, where he was staying. They wanted him out because apparently he was getting up in the middle of the night and raging.

We spoke to the owners. My mom and I laid down some threats, but it didn't really matter. We were already working to find a way to get him out of there. After the argument, we went and sat out in the backyard with my grandfather. As we were talking to him, Sandra Bullock started crying.

"What's wrong?" said my grandfather. "You're crying?"

She tried to say something, but it came out all choked and incoherent.

"Don't worry," he said in response. "It's going to be okay. Now you say it: it's going to be okay."

The last time I saw my grandfather, they were loading him into an aid car. An ambulance plane was waiting to take my grandmother and him to Arizona, where they'd be near my parents and he'd finally get the kind of professional treatment he needed. As they wheeled him out, he said to the EMTs, "Are you guys with our platoon? I saw you out there. You were doing a great job."

He was wearing oversized sunglasses and staring up into the sky, one of the greatest men to walk the earth.

They loaded him up. He was laying in the back of the truck. My grandmother was sitting next to him, a total nervous wreck after the truck showed up an hour late. Before they pulled away, he pointed at me. "The keys are in the breast pocket of my tweed sportcoat," he said. "It's in the hallway closet."

And then they shut the doors and he was gone. Our biggest worry at that point was that his overall health was too good to let him die. He'd be like this for years.

It didn't work out that way. About a month later, the lieukemia he'd had for several years came out of remission. Faced with the choice of prolonging his life or letting him go, my grandmother and father chose the latter. One afternoon, my grandmother sat next to his bed, holding his hand. His eyes were closed.

"If you can hear me, squeeze my hand," said my grandmother. He did it once, and that was it. He was 92, which should have made it okay, but it still wasn't.

Less than 24 hours later, I went with my father to clean out my grandfather's room at the assisted living place. It wasn't exactly joyful work. If we'd thought about it at all, we would have felt relief. I can't speak for everyone, but for me, my dad completely summed it up. "When my grandfather died, I remember my father saying that he couldn't believe he'd never see him again. I always wondered what he meant by that. Now I know."

That was six months ago. I'm not a big crying guy, so I haven't broken down over the loss of my grandfather, but you can't bring him up without getting me close.

That was it. No service, no funeral. He was just gone. More like missing. And I can't believe I'm not going to ever see him again.

Now I know at this time you're supposed to see solace and comfort in your religion. I thought about that a week later. Every Saturday service -- Bar Mitzvah or not -- ends with a prayer called "the mourner's kaddish." Before you say it, everyone who's in mourning stands up and one-by-one, says the name of the person they're mourning. So the next Bar Mitzvah we're at, Sandra Bullock pokes me and says, "You should say your grandfather's name."

I guess so, but at that point I couldn't think of anything I wanted to do less than to stand up and share my mourning with the congregation. I didn't want to sit shiva, I didn't want the rabbi to pray for my grandfather, I didn't want people coming up and feeling sorry for my loss. Part of that might be because I still can't believe that he's gone, but the other part was pretty visceral. At this time of crisis, I wanted nothing to do with the traditional mourning rites of my religion.

The Jawa felt differently. He stood up every week for three weeks, and in fact stood up again yesterday at Maetal Kogon's Bat Mitzvah.

And it's true that I end up thinking about him every time I go to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, which is sort of ridiculous because, like many Jews, my grandfather was a self-proclaimed atheist. But there I am, thinking about him, sometimes because Sandra Bullock will tell me that last week the Jawa decided to dedicate his Bar Mitzvah to him, or because I'm thinking of ways to incorporate him into my speech to the Jawa at his Bar Mitzvah.

He loved Fresh Choice more than anyone. In 92 years, he never lost his appetite. At three p.m. every day, my grandmother would join him for a cocktail. He drank Old Granddad, which I thought was hilarious. He so touched his neighbors that in the months after the move to Arizona, several of them contacted me to see what they could do to help.

One Saturday, a few weeks after they'd moved, we were holding a garage sale. All of their stuff was out in the driveway -- the TV trays I ate from when I was five, the impossibly huge couch that Sandra Bullock and I would sit on, eating Ruffles potato chips with onion dip, every time we came to visit, the push lawnmower that I'd begun using to mow their lawn, each time sending my grandfather into new heights of ecstatic rapture. He simply could not believe his good fortune, having a grandson who'd volunteer to mow the lawn.

About halfway through the garage sale, an older lady was browsing through our stuff. "What happened to him?" she asked. I told her they'd moved to Arizona. "They?" she said. "I thought he was a widower. I'd see him out walking alone. I kind of was hoping to meet him someday."

Even strangers could tell. It was like he was emanating niceness.

So now he's gone and my grandmother is in Arizona. In ten years, we probably took more than 50 trips to Sacramento, a place we're likely to never visit again. I'm no New Age ghost story guy, but for my own reasons, I'm going to imagine that he's at our Bar Mitzvah, sitting up in the balcony, maybe, looking down at the Jawa, beaming. And my hopes for the Jawa are the same as they are for me; to be more like him.

Friday, March 26, 2010

148 days to Bar Mitzvah: stamp of approval (part II)

I used to feel like I wasn’t pulling my weight, Bar Mitzvah planning-wise. Not anymore. Yesterday’s stamp gymkhana was just a warm-up. The real heavy lifting came today.

The day wasn’t going well to begin with. By eight, I’d already spent fifteen minutes standing amidst a jumble of Legos, binders, discarded clothes and crumpled up pieces of paper, yelling at my son. His response as predictable as it was unavoidable. He moved into super slow-motion mode, displaying all the emotion of a cyborg.

By the time he left for school, I was about three EKG spikes away from a coronary, so I did what all people with multiple risk factors for heart disease do every Friday morning: I walked down the hill and had a blueberry muffin to calm down.

I almost didn’t go looking for the stamps today. Sandra Bullock had almost convinced me that 132 would be enough. By lunchtime, though, the heavy weight of failure was too much to stand. Surely they’d have Lunar New Year stamps at the Rincon Station. My wife’s co-worker Laura all but guaranteed it. And it was a short walk from work, on a nice, sunny day.

There was a line at Rincon, but at this point, the post office line was a novelty. So what if two women carrying packages decided to skip the line altogether and take up positions in front? People are going to do stuff like that. From my spot halfway back, I could only hope that karma would strike them later on. Perhaps they’d spend their next BART ride squashed up against a post.

In San Francisco, they staff post office branches with two types of people: elderly Chinese ladies and jolly, rotund hippies. At Rincon, I drew the latter, which worked out well, because I could tell it really pained him to tell me there were no Lunar New Year stamps at the Rincon Station. “Wait,” he said, eyes twinkling. He disappeared into a back room and came back with one sheet. Twelve down, 66 to go.
“If I were you,” he confided, his white beard clashing with his earring, a dangling Ankh, “I’d try the post office at Macy’s.”

“There’s a post office at Macy’s?”

“It’s used mostly for international mailing. If anyone has those stamps, they will.”
There are days when the weather in San Francisco is so good that it wipes away everything frustrating and/or annoying about the place. Walking back toward downtown from the Embarcadero, the joyous briskness of our weather took the angst out of me. I would find the stamps or I wouldn’t. Meanwhile, the Hyatt Regency is so crisply outlined against the sky, it’s practically jumping out of its foundation.

The weather is so good that everyone is talking a little bit louder. I get bits and pieces of their conversations as I charge up Market Street. One guy speaks Tagalog into a cell phone. All it get is “(unintelligible) Corizon Aquino (unintelligible) Independence Day.” Another girl snaps open her phone, dials a number and barks, “Is this a bad time?”

It’s still hard to imagine I’ll find my stamps at Macy’s. The Sutter Station, located in my favorite San Francisco landmark, the Willis Polk-designed Hallidie Building, was on the way. Certainly they’d have a few Lunar New Year stamps.

The problem was that I was going about this backwards. I figured the larger the post office, the more likely they’d have my stamps, when actually, the opposite was true. I was halfway through the line at Sutter when a postal employee – I didn’t recognize her as one, because she was neither an elderly Chinese Lady nor a portly ex-hippie – came by asking what I needed. “Lunar New Year stamps?” I said with the uncertain whine I’d adopted to demonstrate that I knew I was literally asking for the moon.

“We’re all out,” she said. “You know where you should go?”


“They’ll have lots of them. It’s downstairs,” she said mysteriously, “near the pots and pans.”

Macys was a few blocks away, on the other side of a bunch of stores full of clothes I’ll never be able to afford or wear flatteringly.

Macy’s has two basements. The first one is an uncomfortable riot of sound and colors, a sensory assault of watches, perfumes, cosmetics and small groups of identically-dressed, stick-thin sales girls who know not to spray perfume at a slightly desperate-looking middle aged guy looking wildly around the room for pots and pans.

The other basement is down a narrow flight of stairs. Here are the pots and pans, the cooking demonstration counter (where two bored Macy’s employees were hanging out, talking about “chicks”) and the “Marketplace,” which is actually a food court. No sign of the post office.

That’s because it’s hidden behind the flatware, nowhere near the pots and pans, under a sign so small it seems embarassed. Since it was only slightly easier to find than, well, than Lunar New Year stamps, I figured it’d be empty. I was wrong. The line was eight people long and not moving.

Nothing had moved in this room since 1964. Somehow, without crossing the River Styx, I’d found Satan’s post office branch. His clever ruse of hiring standard-issue elderly Chinese ladies was transparent. Here I would stand, 66 stamps short, for eternity.

After fifteen minutes, ready to collapse, I approached the desk. “Hi,” I mumbled. “Do you have any Lunar New Year stamps?”

Beelzebub part-time worker smiled. “Oh, yes,” she said. “How many do you need?”
Without even negotiating for my soul, she produced several sheets. “Six, no seven!” I shouted. She counted them out with a good cheer that suggested she might throw in a nice hot bowl of soup, or a blanket, should I get chilly.

I wish you could have felt the euphoria. Walking back through the Macy’s basement, the pots and pans suddenly shimmered. The no-stick Teflon demo people smiled beatifically as I passed. I held in my hand eight sheets of Lunar New Year stamps. Add them to yesterday’s haul and I had 216 total stamps, all that I’d been asked to get plus six.

In a little over 24 hours, I’d been to six post office branches and stood in line for a total of an hour. But it didn’t matter. For once, I’d come through, and that was enough.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

149 days to Bar Mitzvah: wild stamp chase

One reason Sandra Bullock is Sandra Bullock and we are not is her commitment to honoring the most miniscule of details. While this is only a small factor in her great career success, it will prove to be invaluable as the Bar Mitzvah nears.

For the people that live with her, this particular personality trait can be a wonderful thing. I'll admit, for example, that after 17+ years I've grown fond of finding the covers turned down on the bed each night, though a chocolate on the pillow would also be a nice touch.

But there are time when my sense of wonder is more "huh?" than "wow." There are times when I am an sent on a detailed errand, only to find that the realities of the world won't support my wife's commitment to detail. News of this is usually received by my wife much in the same way as she receives a plea from the Jawa or I that yes, we looked all over, but we still can't find (our wallet, the keys, the Tylenol, etc.). That is to say she doesn't believe us.

I work on Sundays, which is an open secret at work. I'm not supposed to.

But I do, so I don't feel too bad when a Thursday includes some errands along with work. Today, the errand was easy: go to the post office and pick up 210 stamps for Bar Mitzvah invitations.

Did I mention that Sandra Bullock is detail-oriented? You can't put any old stamp on Bar Mitzvah invites. As cool as that Frank Sinatra stamp looked stuck to the wall at the post office, we had a specific stamp that needed to be bought.

As a sidelight, did you know you can make your own stamps? That's exactly what I thought we were doing. I thought the design team had found a way to create Godzilla stamps, and I was partially correct. The Godzilla stamps, while still in beta testing, will go on the invitations themselves. The stamps I was sent to get were for the RSVP cards.

"Get 210 Lunar New Year stamps," said my wife to me last night. "They've got to be the Lunar New Year stamps. If they don't have 210, get as many as they have."

I got right away that Lunar New Year, also known as Chinese New Year, happened a few weeks ago. That this might impact the availability of stamps commemorating the event didn't occur to me until much later, though.

So off I went to the Diamond Heights post office, to buy 210 Lunar New Year stamps, repeating over and over in my head "Lunar New Year stamps, Lunar New Year stamps," so I wouldn't forget.

I got to the front of the line and said, "I need 11 books of Lunar New Year stamps, or whatever you have."

"I don't think we have 11 books," said the unimpressed postal worker. "I'll check."

They had exactly 11 books, which made me glow with accomplishment until I got outside and realized that unlike normal stamps, Lunar New Year stamps come in sheets of 12. Instead of 210, I had 132. I was 78 short.

Meanwhile, there were other errands to run. We needed our oil changed. As I sat there at SpeeDee Lube, waiting for my five quarts of synthetic 5W-40, I stewed over the missing 78 stamps. I didn't want to have to call up Sandra Bullock and tell her I'd only found 62.9% of the stamps we needed.

So I decided, sitting there in the SpeeDee waiting room, that I would continue looking until I found the other 78 stamps, or until I had to go pick up the Jawa. Only my responsibilities to get the Jawa to his Rabbi class then to swim lessons, would supercede my responsiblities to the other 78 Lunar New Year stamps.

I used my Blackberry to find the nearest post office to SpeeDee Lube. It was in West Portal, only a few minutes away -- and as luck would have it, the neighborhood I'd be spotlighting in this week's Examiner real estate section.

I got there, parked at a meter -- risking another ticket -- and ran into the post office, where I was surprised to find that the entire building, customers included, had been preserved in amber since 1947; almost interesting enough to cushion my disappointment upon finding that they had no Lunar New Year stamps. Not one. "They've been discontinued," the postal clerk said without vocal inflection.

Discontinued. Of course. Chinese New Year was weeks ago. I'd been sent on a wild goose chase. It was amazing that I'd gotten 132 of these dated, yesterday's news stamps. Would Sandra Bullock accept that as an excuse? Not likely. So I drove to Noe Valley. Diamond Heights had a 132 sitting around. Surely Noe Valley had been allotted stacks of Lunar New Year stamps in anticipation of a major run, only to find that the locals prefer Earth Day stamps, which demonstrate the kind of commitment to the environment that goes over big in Noe Valley.

Again, I parked at a meter without putting in any change. I got out, sprinted to the post office and stood in line.

"I need seven sheets of Lunar New Year stamps?"

"They're all gone. They've been discontinued."

I returned home several hours later reeking of failure. I would own up and admit that I'd fallen a third short of my goal. Given only a few Bar Mitzvah responsibilities, I'd fumbled even those. Forget that I mananaged to find not only the modeling clay and white spray paint but also the moose the Jawa needed for his Boreal forest diorama. Forget that I'd gotten from Temple Emanu-El to Pacifica in 23 minutes during rush hour. I was 37.1% less useful and reliable than I needed to be.

"I only got 132 stamps," I texted to Sandra Bullock on the way home, thanking the engineers who work tirelessly to provide me with the technology I need to avoid direct conflict.

When we got home, though, she was blase about the whole thing. Sort of. "Oh, that's okay," she said, right before settling onto the couch and firing up her laptop for another three hours of Genentech work. "Maybe you can try downtown tomorrow?"

"Laura (from work) says that the Rincon post office has tons of stamps." So if you're looking for me tomorrow at, say, two in the afternoon, you won't find me at the office of the San Francisco Examiner. I'll be out in the street, dodging random protesters and ill-advisedly crossing pickets lines, whatever it takes for a chance at redemption. If I can return home with 78 more Lunar New Year stamps, I will be a hero in the eyes of my wife and son. Or at least not a failure.

Either that or I'll just pick up 78 Frank Sinatra stamps. I mean, who's really paying close enough attention to notice the difference?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

150 days to Bar Mitzvah: coming up short. again.

Leaving work tonight, I exited 71 Stevenson Street to the always eerie roar of helicopters. I don't know why I find them always eerie, but I do. It's not like I grew up in South Central, where hovering choppers are an almost constant reminder of hopelessness, or served in the military in 'Nam. I hear helicopters infrequently, but everytime I do, they freak me out. I always expect to read about it in the news the next day.

One time, a helicopter hovered over our house. I saw it and figured that some mass murderer was hiding out in the alleyway that runs behind us. After an hour or so, the helicopter left. Nothing on the news that night, or the next day. As far as I know, the killer is still at large.

Today, the helicopters were only part of the scene. There were two of them; one was hovering over Union Square. The other one was somewhere South of Market Street. Right as I turned the corner onto Market, two fire engines came tearing around the corner, sirens wailing. Then another one, followed by the Chevy Suburban carrying the fire chief.

A big clump of cops was standing on the sidewalk. No riot gear, but still, a big clump of cops.

By now, my adrenaline was pumping, and not necessarily in a bad way. Save for the year after 9/11, when the annual Blue Angels practice day suddenly became a horrible case of "what if?" I've always liked urban chaos. Chaos of all kinds, actually. With helicopters, fire trucks and phalanxes of cops, this looked like a good one.

What if it was Godzilla? I thought this for a moment. Something crazy like that? Or some kind of attack?

Before I had a chance to consider all of the possible doomsday scenarios, I saw the huge crowd of people gathered at the corner of Market and Montgomery, with the signs and the banners. And I heard the chanting and drum-beating, the specific quality of which identified the gathering as a protest march.

Of course. It was the third one this week. The last one was Saturday. It was supposed to be a "Day of Peace," but as usual, by the time it passed us, it had devolved into the usual "Free Palestine!" rally, meaning it was like a peace march, only instead of being peaceful it was really, really angry, and instead of signs encouraging peace, the marchers carried posters accusing Jews of being like Nazis.

San Francisco.

And once again, an unplanned-for opportunity for a young Jewish Jawa to ask his father all sorts of questions, not a one of which the father, at the moment overcome with a myriad of negative emotions and wanting only to get far away, very fast, is at all prepared to answer.

The way I see it, you have no kids you cut your chances of dangerous failure by half. No kids means nobody takes what you say as the gospel truth, which means no chance for you to really screw someone up by displaying your less-than-stellar side when you should be behaving with sage-like calm.

So what did I do? I said, "Just keep walking. They hate us, and nothing we can do is going to change that."

I think I just heard a bunch of well-meaning people gasp with outrage. If you want, I can dig up an equal number of sources to back myself up as you can to prove me wrong. That's not what we're talking about here.

What we're talking about is me taking away my kid's right to make up his own mind, and that's wrong. Usually, I'm pretty good. When he said, at age four, that he liked George W. Bush because he had a cool hairstyle, I told him I wasn't a fan, but it was his call. When he parroted me during the 2003 Mayoral election and said, "Matt Gonzalez hates families!" I took the time to explain that, while I would not vote for Matt Gonzalez because I don't agree with his stated positions on pretty much everything, I have never met him and therefore do not know if he hates families.

Whatever I think of the people marching in the parade, it's up to the Jawa to form his own opinion. So when we sat down for a nutritious lunch of Panda Express and Rubios at the San Francisco Center food court, I tried to explain why I felt the way I did. I tried, but still probably failed. My heart wasn't in it. Mostly I was trying to make lunch last long enough that by the time we came back up to street level, the "peace" marchers would be gone.

San Francisco protests crack me up. When the Iraq war started, the protest calendar was full almost every day. They'd march down Market toward City Hall chanting, "The whole world is watching!" which is kind of funny, because if the whole world were to watch, most of them would probably go, "Well, sure, it's San Francisco. Business as usual."

Live here for a decade and you either become a professional protester or suffer from protest overload. It's the exact opposite of living in a quiet small town. Nobody knows you and everyone's mad.

Ten years in and I'm as blase about a protest as a native Angelino is about celebrities. Ten thousand people gathered in front of Dianne Feinstein's office to demand immigrant rights reform has the same impact as seeing Don Cheadle eating breakfast in Santa Monica. And this from someone who was an unwilling participant in the 1999 WTO riots for three days straight.

That's what the protest was about tonight; immigrant rights reform. I'm not sure if it was about legal or illegal immigrants. Had Godzilla been there, as a Japanese national I guess he would have had a vested interest. One thing's for sure. Dianne Feinstein totally would have met their demands.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

151 days to Bar Mitzvah: post-modern middle school

Another sign middle school has changed: we just got back from Best Buy in Colma, where we bought a very small laptop computer -- a netbook, I think it's called. We did this on the advice of Ms.Christina Pak, BHDS English teacher Ms. Baumer and school counselor Ms. Loveland, who created a powerful voting bloc suggesting that the Jawa, not a natural "writer" and an even worse "handwriter" would benefit from typing his notes and in-class writing.

This Jawa, he comes by his illegibility honestly. Part of my job is walking around houses, surreptitiously taking notes that say things like, "GIANT master bdr. w/ bath and spa tub, 2-head shower, double vty. W-in w/ organizer." As hard as that is to understand the way it's written here, there are times -- an increasing number of times, I'm frightened to admit -- that I get home from looking at open houses and can't make heads or tails out of what I've written. I, too, need a Gateway notebook computer.

A limited survey revealed that 100% of polled female Brandeis Hillel Day School faculty members thought the Jawa needed to be typing in school. After not pausing for a moment to marvel at the casualness with which they theoretically spent our money, I got on board. The trip to Best Buy was planned.

Notebook computers (translated from the Japanese as notabuko computer, I'm not kidding)cost far less than laptops. The best ones top out at $400. Besides that, they're so freaking cool looking that it was all I could do not to buy one for myself. Better yet, their total lack of capacity for games and other distractions is perfect for our needs.

The Jawa, bless his heart, did not choose the most expensive notebook computer. He picked the Gateway that was $80 less, leaving us free to make up the difference with a two-year Geek Squad warranty. "Would you like to get some extra protection?" asked the young salesgirl. Before I could point to the Jawa and say, "Don't you think it's a little late for that?" Sandra Bullock was saying, "Yes, we do," citing all of the factors that led to me own a dozen pairs of eyeglasses before the age of 11 as a reason to spend the extra $60.

From there, we celebrated in one of my favorite thumb-your-nose-at-the-city ways: dinner in a restaurant with laminated menus. How can you go wrong with a menu that includes food from every corner of the world? Especially if said menu is coated with plastic, making is much easier to clean at the end of the evening shift? Maybe all of those people I see shoving past each other on BART every morning would find a new, calmer worldview if that world included sliders with bacon and cheddar and restaurant interiors designed by HOK architects of Kansas City, Missouri.

Throughout this ordeal, if you can call it that, one thing was holding me back. It was the image of my Jawa showing up on Monday as The Kid With the Laptop. Would that be like being The Kid With Glasses, The Jewish Kid or a middle school favorite, The Kid With Sweat Rings Under His Arms After P.E.?

"So does he just show up tomorrow with a laptop?" I asked. "Do they need to send some kind of a notification to his teachers?"

Will they make fun of him? Will the teachers stop class and say, "Now, everyone, the Jawa will have a laptop in class. Lets try to treat him like we treat everyone else and not make him feel weird?"

Fortunately, Sandra Bullock thought to ask him, "Will you be the only one with a laptop in class?"

"Oh, no," said the Jawa, who'd removed the machine from its box and had the contents spread out across the table, dangerously close to the sweet potato fries. He began ticking off the names of people in school who used laptops. The list was comprehensive. According to the Jawa, it included at least half of the kids in his class. Even the popular girls, for whom loopy, engaging handwriting seems to be a birthright, were showing up wired.

"What a relief," I thought, and then, "Wow, in seventh grade?" When the nice young salesgirl offered us the two-year Geek Squad warranty, my first thought was, "In two years, it'll be a toss-up as to what makes that thing less practical: its overall condition or its obselescence. Which means that by the time he gets out of college, he'll conservatively be on his third or fourth laptop, maybe his fifth.

Naturally, this brought back memories of the first time I saw a computer in a dorm room, while visiting my friend Chris Drape at Stanford in the spring of 1984. I was down the road at Santa Clara, where no one had computers in their dorm rooms. Two years later I saw my first Mac. Bruce Cech had one in his room at the fraternity house. It was amazing. Never again would we have to make party fliers by hand.

The Jawa "thinks of himself as a tech guy," according to the school counselor. You don't need to be a "tech guy" to lug a notebook computer around middle school in 2010. They're just the modern-day version of the big plastic combs we stuffed in the back pockets of our 501s in 1978. The combs were cheaper.

So tomorrow, the Jawa will show up in English class. Like a full half of his class, he'll put down his backpack, reach inside and extract the small nylon bag that holds his notebook.

And then what? Eleven kids start looking around for three-pronged outlets? Eleven kids power up, and the fourth and fifth minutes of class are punctuated by the robotic chimes of eleven simultaneously booting computers?

You're telling me that every day, that English teacher lectures over the sound of eleven sets of hands gliding over their keyboards? On the bright side, this means that within ten years, I can stop explaining to phone interviews that the sound they hear is me typing their responses to my questions.

Then class ends, everyone struggles to wind up their power cords, shove them in their backpacks and jam their notebooks into whatever room's left. And then onto the next class. All in a day's work.

It's mind-boggling.

Monday, March 22, 2010

152 days to Bar Mitzvah: deja vu

One final note on the yarmulkes: 120 -- a heap -- arrived here last week. Not included among them was the Godzilla yarmulke. It arrived today, sent in an unassuming little cardboard box via regular mail. Somehow, it managed to cross the country (because where do kippot come from if not Brooklyn, New York?) without destroying any buildings, breathing fire out of its mouth or emerging from the ocean, waving its arms and roaring.

Lets get something straight: I understand why the Jawa's room is a mess, why his homework always ends up crumpled into a ball at the bottom of his backpack. I get why he finishes his test before everyone else and then doesn't use the time he has leftover to check his work.

If I were a self-made man, a savant whose obvious problems getting through every day were overshadowed by his genius, a savvy achiever whose gifts were a license to print money, I could yell at the child without restraint or guilt. Or perhaps I would let it all slide. I might be one of those guys who smiles ruefully, shakes his head, slyly winks and says, "Boys will be boys."

I spent most of last weekend angry at an email I got from work Friday night. In it, a very young sales coordinator assigned me a big piece of work whose atrocious timing was exceeded only by its ability to deliver a solar plexus punch reminding me that poor decisions and a lack of direction lead directly to bad Friday night emails from young sales coordinators.

I blasted off a couple of emails in response, but by now the work powers-that-be know to ignore my emails. "He'll complain, but he'll do it," they reason. "He has to. What's he going to do? Say 'no'?"

Friday night, while Sandra Bullock attended a jewelry party, I did crossword puzzle after crossword puzzle. Nothing worked. I was up until three. Saturday, I went to a black tie party sans black tie. Walking downtown with a few college friends, we passed a group of young, drunk idiots who decided to heckle us because we were dressed up. I decided that, on the eve of my 45th birthday, the right thing to do would be to get in their faces and ineffectually impersonate someone really intimidating.

Unsurprisingly, it didn't work. Eventually, they left anyway. "I hate guys like that," I growled. "Oh, they were just goofing around," said my friend Cameron, a social worker and foster parent.

By this morning, I was already shaking before I got to work. Which was pointless, because I knew that once I got there, I'd be doing whatever they wanted me to do anyway. A long list of reasons why a member of the editorial staff shouldn't have to write 1,000 words about a Ford dealer would have demonstrated nothing other than my ability to outline an argument.

So instead, I had to bomb through my regular stuff -- the articles I write every week for the Sunday real estate section -- while leaving enough time to write 1,000 words about Serramonte Ford. By the time I left work, I'd been writing for eight hours straight. Actually, it was seven-and-a-half. I could have started on the thing they assigned me later in the day, but I just didn't have it in me to add 500 words about an optometrist on top of all the other stuff.

This isn't a pity party for me. I'm over that. It's more about frustration -- and trying to undo all the things I did to get to this point in the first place while I still have time.

So if I could tell my Jawa in a way that would get him to listen, I'd tell him that the worst thing procrastinating, idling, doing things halfway and skating through life can get you is 40 hours every week of sales coordinators who have more control over your life than you do. I'm guessing, though, that the sooner he can eradicate all of my habits, the better chance he has of having some control of his Monday-through-Friday life down the line. Or at least getting his marching orders from people who are not young enough to be his child.

But it doesn't look like now the time for such lectures. Either that, or I am not yet skilled enough a motivator. I mean, you don't want to walk up to your kid and say, "Look, you watch yourself or you'll end up like me." I'm not a criminal. I've done no jail time. It's not like we're talking epic tragedy here.

Now is the time to let the rope unravel, I think, while hanging onto your end with all your might. To bite your lip and not say, "How on earth did a deck of playing cards end up splayed out all over your floor?" every time you walk past your child's room. Even though the urge to do so is great.

Tonight, as we were leaving our parent-teacher conference with the unflappable Christina Pak, she said to us, "You're good parents." We thanked her and went outside to our Jawa, who was sitting on a flight of stairs, huddled against the cool night air in his new plaid shorts and a t-shirt. Whenever we have parent-teacher conferences, my first action afterwards is to put my arm around the Jawa and hold his neck with my hand like my dad used to do with me. Whether I'm feeling proud, angry, worried or a combination of all three (as is usually the case), I do that.

Two hours later, I'm avoiding going near his room because he just asked me to help him clean it up and I know there's no way I can do that without turning into "nothing is good enough for me" dad.

Once when the Jawa was a toddler and I was enjoying one of my infrequent tastes of career direction, I went to a company picnic alone and watched a co-worker's young kid wobble around on a concrete sidewalk. "Man, if I was you right now," I told my co-worker, "I'd be standing about three inches behind him."

"Nah," the guy said back to me. "If he falls, it's okay. He'll get back up."

Is that what we're supposed to do now? Let missing homework and disastrous bedrooms take their own course? Like I said, it'd be easier to do if I didn't already know how that particular story turns out.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

153 days to Bar Mitzvah: how much (traditional Jewish headgear) is too much?

I have a friend who's made a lifelong study of the terms we use to measure things. Not content with existing uses of words like "gaggle," "pack" and "group," he spent long nights during college (we were roommates) thinking of new applications for words that measure. Certain items, he reasoned, lacked a standard term for describing them in plural, so he took it upon himself to assign them himself.

He was particularly intrigued with the term "loaf." It was brutally underutilized. So it was that we began to refer to a "loaf" of yak. Or smelt. Added to my older sister's pronouncement (many years earlier) that from that moment hence "hippies" would be measured in "gaggles," and we had the basis for a language revolution.

Sadly, it never caught on, much as the earnest attempt one summer by my little sister and I to install "take the Fritos" into local lexicon as a synomym for "get lost." All these years later, my college roommate and I are still the only ones who measure yak and smelt in loaves.

Earlier this week, 120 yarmulkas arrived at our house. That's about twice as many as we need, we found out too late. We'll probably leave the extras at Temple Emanu-El. They'll show up at other people's Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. It's common to arrive at a Bar Mitzvah, grab a kippah and find a name of some kid you've never met written inside, along with a date that passed several months ago. Kids find it a little unnerving, but adults know the score.

I just asked Sandra Bullock how many kippahs 120 is. "I don't know, ten dozen?" she said.

"Maybe it's a gross," I suggested.

"It's more than we need," she responded, as usual cutting directly to the heart of the issue.

My college roommate will be at the Bar Mitzvah, but I don't think I can wait that long for an appropriate handle for 120 yarmulkes. I'd like to use the always utile "buttload" to describe 120 yarmulkes, but this being a faith-based, family event, that might not fly.

"Loaf" might apply. 120 yarmulkes could easily be arranged in a way that would resemble a loaf. But I don't want to compromise the simple genius of 25 years of loaves of yak and smelt.

A "collection" of yarmulkes suggests they are Isaac Mizrahi's new Fall line. If any designer could pull it off, it's Mizrahi. Nor are they a "troupe" of skull caps, though history will show kippahs worn in the past by Yiddish theater "troupes." And while our kippahs cost only pennies, I would not describe what we have as a "great deal" of them, unless I was trying to be erudite.

A "clique?" Only the cool ones.

Yarmulkes would never travel in a "pack." Nor could they effectively represent the shady hidden agendas of a "consortium" or have the far-reaching tentacles of an "amalgam," no matter how many hats you had. Unlike fish, they cannot be measured in "schools."

No, when it comes to kippahs, it's best to turn back to the simple, pithy handles that have served as the building blocks of language since the beginning. 120 yarmulkes? That's a whole bunch. Twelve dozen buttonless satin skullcaps? That's quite a load.

120 yarmulkes are a heap, a bundle, a swarm, a mess, a pile and a drove. We've got a big bevy of yarmulkes, a multitude of lightweight headgear, a mass of traditional men's religious symbols, a blowout of yarmulkan proportions.

If we were in New England, my Reading, Mass.-raised friend Ted tells me, we could jam a yarmulke on our head, point to it and announce, "This kippah's a keepah!"

Whatever you want to call them, one thing is clear: we've got too many.

This morning, I awoke to find Sandra Bullock sitting at her laptop next to a big stack of Bar Mitzvah-related documents. "We have alot to do," she told me, rattling off a list of procedural issues that included finalizing the menus for both Friday night and the oneg/Kiddish lunch and determining the amount of the surprising (to me) number of charital contributions expected by Temple Emanu-El. There's the cantor fund, the Rabbi's charity fund, the flower fund and one or two more whose names I can't recall, if in fact I have recalled those three correctly.

Proper etiquette is to donate in multiples of 18, the numeric translation for "chai," Hebrew for "life."

And there are unopened boxes of vases downstairs, candles to purchase, hotel information to send and bamboo decisions to be made. And that's only counting the little pile of notebook paper and post-its I just glanced at.

Yesterday, during our afternoon-long family shopping outing, we went to Nordstrom, where the Jawa and I sat in front of a giant mirror while Sandra Bullock tried on various dresses. She finally decided on a very nice black-and-white number, then comically tried on several "shrugs," very small cardigan sweater-type things that stand for everything my wife abhors about lightness and frivolity. "They're so dainty," she grumbled, wriggling into a fuschia shrug then involuntarily slumping her shoulders like an angry teen under the pointless weight of a white one.

Finally, having found a shrug that didn't make her fly into a blind rage, she stood patiently while the in-house Nordstrom tailor poked her with pins. We left Nordstrom with one major Bar Mitzvah task completed: "buy dress for service" is crossed off the list.

In the end, she was happy enough with the purchase to write about it on Facebook, yet not satisfied to spend Sunday basking in the glow of her Everest-like accomplishment. Instead, she got right back on the Bar Mitzvah horse, which is why she is Sandra Bullock and the rest of us -- most notably me -- are not.

Friday, March 19, 2010

155 days to Bar Mitzvah: jawa wisdom

You can't always be a good parent, and right now I'm not being a good parent. I'm not actively being a bad parent; I'm just not actively being a good parent, either.

Two days ago, while we were watching some show upstairs, probably marveling at how HD has allowed us to see Ryan Seacrest's pores where once he was a smooth swatch of flawless skin, the Jawa emerged from his room, stood in front of the TV, grabbed the remote and hit "mute."

Snapped out of our HD-generated bliss, Sandra Bullock and I flew into a cojoined rage. "Hey!" we said, in unison. "What are you doing?"

"Okay," said the take-charge Jawa. I just read an article that said that children of depressed parents are more likely to end up abusing drugs and alcohol as adults."

We waited for the punch line.

"So when you start yelling at me, that shows you're depressed."

"Which might lead to you abusing drugs and alcohol as an adult?"

"It might."

First of all, you've got to admire the logic. Its direct applicability to our particular situation was a little murkier. Given that the Jawa had a full head of steam (he wouldn't have muted the TV had he not. If he'd had only a half-full head of steam, he would have stayed in his room listening to Jay-Z, perhaps cursing us under his breath but keeping it in-house), we had to consider his point of view.

If I had been a better father, the kind of man who began his career as a parent by stroking his wife's hair and murmuring, "You're doing great, honey; I'm so proud of you," during labor, I might have turned off the TV and used this as a teaching moment. You are heard, child. We will respond.

Conversely, I could have been a worse father, yelling, "Get out form in front of the TV!" calling forth the challenges and frustrations of the day to use as rationale for choosing Seacrest over my child. If I were one of either of these parents, I wouldn't be writing about it several days later. The incident would have passed, I would have been satisfied with our response, whichever it was, and forgotten about it immediately.

There is a third way, in which you dismiss your child, then, in the space of five seconds, remember that you're supposed to be using this as a teaching moment, so engage your child, hopefully soon enough that the teaching moment has not passed.

Surely, it must be pointed out that yelling at your child may not be a telltale sign of depression, and in fact that severe depression might as easily lead to total withdrawal from your child, marked by the total absence of yelling. So, too, could you emphasize that regardless of the condition of the parent, the child can still have the strength to avoid drug and alcohol abuse. Finally, the child might also be reminded that any yelling he is absorbing might be at least partially the result of his own aberrant behavoir.

Naturally, I chose the last option.

"So," I said. "Do you think a parent must be depressed to, say, yell at their kid for having a messy room?"

Jawa: (very small voice) "No."

"And the other morning, when you told me all I do is yell at you, and I responded by asking if you would have cleaned up your room had I not yelled at you, would you have cleaned up your room without me yelling at you?"

Jawa: (smiling now) "No."

"Alright, then. Turn the TV back on."

But there is something to what he was saying. Though his example was extreme, there are moments when your own baggage is heavy enough that you would collapse under any added parental weight. You had a bad and/or overwhelming day at work. A disagreement with someone you know that you could have nipped in the bud before it got out of hand. You made the mistake of reading the San Francisco Bay Guardian and are convinced that the world stridently makes no sense. You were trapped in a cloud of patchouli on BART.

Today, I had such a day, and so, left on my own with the Jawa while Sandra Bullock attended the 21st century version of a Tupperware party, where a bunch of people get together to buy jewelry from undiscovered designers, chose to bury myself under the white noise of the NCAA Tournament rather than engage with my child. He placed himself in front of the electronic babysitter, nee Roller Coaster Tycoon III, and without complaint went to work creating a virtual theme park.

He must have called on his supernatural pre-teen perception powers when putting together his action plan for the evening. Because even though I've been doing my best to appear chipper and perky, he's been bending over backwards to behave like the greatest child to ever walk the earth. His mind is working furiously and obviously to create connections between us, whether that means enthusiastically showing me his virtual theme park (and pointing out the rides that would make me sick) or checking with me every five minutes to make sure I'm enjoying the On Demand episode of "Mythbusters" that we're now watching together.

So even though I'm not up to the task of battling the world and then being an available parent, the Jawa, fresh off several hours of acting as ringleader/supervisor of the half-dozen little kids on the block while his parents stood nearby downing Margaritas, has decided that part of his evening's responsibilities include trying to cheer up his dad, who isn't much cheerier but at least is reminded of what author Kelly Corrigan refers to as "the most devine gift of your life."

"Because the divine gift has not brushed their teeth, and they just lost their retainer, and they only have one of their two shoes," says Corrigan, who wrote her new book, "Lift," so her daughters would have a record of what it was like to be their mother> According to Kelly Corrigan, remembering the divinity of that gift is "the hard thing about parenting."

I'll need that reminder at about 7:45 on Monday. For tonight, I'm good.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

156 days to Bar Mitzvah: what's in the boxes?

Yesterday, when the Jawa and I returned home from Torah changing class, we found waiting for us five large boxes. Three were encased in extra-large bubble wrap. The other two, eerily, were not. All five were sitting on the front porch, completely disrupting Sandra Bullock's recent attempt at creating a sidewalk cafe feel for our porch.

When we bought the house, nine years ago next month, the porch was hidden behind a set of foreboding metal grates. To get to the porch, you first had to unlock the grates. Upon seeing them, we quickly agreed: the metal grates needed to go. They looked awful and worse, said things about the neighborhood that had been largely untrue for over a decade. So nine years ago, we unscrewed the bolts that held the grates in, then stashed them (there were more on two downstairs windows) in the weird sideways crawl space that someone who obviously was not a contractor put in while finished our basement/first floor.

According to the newspaper we found stuffed into the ceiling once when a pipe broke, the basement was finished in 1988. The completed level added a studio apartment to the home, which we dismantled upon moving in. The only thing that remains from the basement's dark past, in fact, is this bizarre, three foot-wide corridor that runs halfway down one side of the house. Here we put the grates, and there they stay.

Last year, perhaps frustrated by our financial inability to evolve the basement past rec-room status, Sandra Bullock decided she was going to re-invent the front porch. Despite the lack of a design team, she developed a vision. The front porch would become a pleasant place to sit for awhile. There would be a bench, and perhaps some art.

I didn't buy into the project, which means I didn't help at all in its realization. My only contribution is a pair of shoes, stuffed under the bench with everyone else's "dog walking" shoes. The shoes, plus the five giant boxes, made Sandra Bullock's proposed sidewalk cafe look more like a loading dock.

The Jawa, fresh off what turned out to be a ten-minute session with Cantor Roslyn Barak, reacted as any 12 year-old would: "Lets open them!" he shrieked.

It makes me sad to not be 12 anymore. Even if I hadn't already known how low the probability of the boxes holding anything of interest to me (or the Jawa)was, I still would have done exactly what I did -- drag the boxes inside and leave them there. Not interested.

Which made the Jawa's curiosity both refreshing and sad. Refreshing because it's always a kick in the butt to watch a 12-year-old wrack his brain trying to figure out what's in the box. To him, it could have been anything. Five boxes just showed up on the porch!

Sad because I knew that ultimately, what was in the boxes would disappoint him. There was a 99% chance it had something to do with the Bar Mitzvah. The chance of it being a Bar Mitzvah detail that neither of us had thought of or would find interesting was almost as high.

I talked him out of opening the boxes. We dragged them inside, where he stacked them in a semi-pyramid, and waited.

He wasn't done yet. Somehow, he'd found the shipping order. He pored over it. Somewhere on that single sheet of paper were the answers to all of his questions. "Where's it from?" he wondered aloud. "Somewhere in California." I was seeing the dying embers of childhood's love of treasure hunts right there at the kitchen table. So what if it turned out to be glass vases? Right now, it was a mystery.

"Industry, California," he said, pausing for effect. In a dozen hours, I would be reminding him that his mother's "It's okay to swear if it's part of the lyrics to a song" edict is not valid when the song is by Jay-Z and the audience includes the six and nine year-old members of our carpool.

"It's vases," he finally said, flatly. "Twenty-four vases."

"Yeah, I figured that," I said. "There for the centerpieces. For the Bar Mitzvah."

"They cost a dollar each," he said. Wouldn't it be great if they really cost a dollar each? Almost as great would be to be twelve and think that vases costing a dollar each really can arrive in the mail and not be found in the darkest corners of weird variety stores in the Mission.

"No, they don't." I said. "Check again."

"Yeah. They cost $24 each."

"What?" Quick math: that's about $500 worth of vases. Is this in the design team budget?

No. The vases cost about half of that. When Sandra Bullock arrived home, we were instructed to move the boxes downstairs. We put them on the bed in the "guest alcove," where they joined other various Bar Mitzvah-related oleo.

Tonight, after dinner, Sandra Bullock stopped for a moment and announced, "There's no turning back now."

"I should hope not, after almost eighteen years of marriage," I thought. But instead of saying that, I said, "What do you mean?"

"We've got the vases now."

So what, there was a chance there would be no Bar Mitzvah until we got the vases? We've put down a deposit on the room and the catering, have attended dozens of Bar Mitzvah classes and just recently arrived at a consensus decision regarding the oneg/Kiddush lunch, but it was all hanging by a thread until those vases arrived.


"No, that's not what I mean," said a vaguely disgusted Bullock, perhaps recalling her teenage dreams of marital bliss, which I've been told included a farmhouse and several acres of land and can only assume completely lacked any mention of the small piles of "New Yorker" magazines which tend to add up after a few months.

"I mean that now we're set for the centerpieces. It's Godzilla all the way." Two sides of each rectangular glass vase will be covered with a reproduction of an original Godzilla movie poster (in Japanese). As if there were ever any question.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

157 days to Bar Mitzvah: culture on the DL

My best St. Patrick’s Day was March 17, 1993. Six weeks after we moved to Seattle, the legendary Dr. Bando and I commandeered a prime table at the Dubliner in Fremont, receiving visitors for 11 hours, until last call sent us home. I stopped celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in 1997.
In 1997, St. Patrick’s Day became someone else’s party, which I guess technically it was all along. I spent part of today walking Shack past all of the Irish bars on Clement Street. It was a warm day, so they all had tables out on the sidewalk, where people held court, maybe having the best St. Patrick’s Day of their lives. I walked by with my dog. We were waiting for the Jawa to complete his weekly Torah chanting class with Cantor Roslyn Barak.

In this way, we counter-programmed the ethnic holiday, replacing the luck of the Irish with the somber, ancient sounds of chanted Hebrew.

Sandra Bullock had a basketball game today at the GenenGym, so I was charged with getting the Jawa to Temple Emanu-El in time for his 4:40 class. Part of my St. Patrick's Day, then, involved driving from Brandeis Hillel Day School to Temple Emanu-El.

On the way, the Jawa and I discussed the theoretic effects hurtling across town may have on my blood pressure. "When I grow up, I'm going to force you and Mommy to move to a small town," said the Jawa as I muttered "Good Lord," Doreen Barker-style, at a minivan crawling down Waller Street.

"You can't yell at traffic. It raises your blood pressure. Like when I argue with you. That raises your blood pressure, too."

The world slowed to a stop, giving me time to weigh my options. The drive was going well. The vibe was very "Courtship of Eddie's Father," with the classic whine of Tom Corbett's MGTD replaced by the silent efficiency of my Volvo V50 (turbo). Did I want to put that in jeopardy by pointing out the obvious? Was it worth the risk?

A father more attuned to the moment and less concerned about pointing out inconsistencies in the teenage mind would have let it pass. By now we know: I am not that father.

"You know what's funny, is that another way to help me with my blood pressure seems pretty obvious."

Sometimes you can feel eyes that you cannot see roll.

Earlier in the drive, as we dodged traffic on Portola Drive, the Jawa practiced chanting his Torah portion. Modern technology has replaced the cassette tape with the MP3 file. He had his entire portion on his iPod. He was listening to it, following along in a book, and chanting in perfect (to my ears, at least) Hebrew. It appeared to me that he was also reading his Torah portion which, even though it shouldn't surprise someone who's paid for eight years of Jewish education, which includes Hebrew instruction, still looked pretty impressive to me, whose knowledge of Hebrew starts and ends with a rudimentary knowledge of the 22 letters of the Aleph-Bet.

After a few minutes, he abruptly clicked off his iPod. "Dad," he said. "My Torah portion is six minutes and 44 seconds long." Then he stared at me, incredulously.

I wasn't sure how I was supposed to respond, because I was thinking, "Six minutes and 44 seconds? This whole thing is about six minutes and 44 seconds? That's only slightly longer than 'Spirit of Radio' (another fine musical performance by a Jew)."

"Uh," I finally said. "And that's long?"

"YES! I have to memorize six minutes and 44 seconds! That's longer than most songs!"

"You've memorized dozens of songs," I pointed out.

"Yes, but not in Hebrew."

He had me there. Still, the whole thing boils down to six minutes and 44 seconds? Contrast that to the five boxes of glass vases that arrived at our house today. No wonder I just memorized mine.

"Hey," I said after awhile. "Why don't we plug that thing into the car stereo so we can listen to it out loud."

"That's a great idea," the Jawa said. "Roll up the windows."

"Roll up the windows?"

"In case some white supremecist is nearby."

My heart broke a little bit. Forget that where we live, reminders of how far Jews have to go before enjoying total acceptance are more likely to come from organic, worker-owned co-op grocery stores than from gatherings of fundamentalist Christians (who, understandably, keep a low profile in the Bay Area). And forget that no matter how I've tried to give him a nuanced view of the world, he's learned by osmosis to default identify the boogie man, San Francisco-style.

The heartbreaking part is that even after eight years of spending his days surrounded by Jews, in a place not only safe for Jews -- intimidating Russian security guys, plus waist-high "decorative" concrete cones strategically-placed in front of the school, making assault via a truck full of explosives unlikely, if not impossible, helps in this regard -- but in total celebration of Jewish culture, he still instinctively wants to make sure the windows are rolled up to avoid getting weird looks from the general public upon hearing the dulcet tones of Cantor Roslyn Barak coming from our car.

I'd just figured that, since enough people had told me I was paranoid, or worse yet, chronically caught in the spiraling web of persecution complex, that this whole "fear of exposure" thing would end with me.

He’d make a lousy cab driver. Those guys mainline the native sounds to whoever is lucky enough to end up in their cab. One time I had a guy blasting Arabic pop music drive me to Brandeis to pick up the Jawa in the rain. And then I patted myself on the back for doing my part to further understanding in the Middle East.

But us, we're not going to drop Hebrew on an unsuspecting world, not even if its impact is softened -- or heightened -- by Cantor Roslyn Barak's golden pipes. And I found this not at all ironic, sad or frustrating a half-hour later, when Shack and I were serenaded by heartbreakingly-beautiful Irish music wafting out of every single one of the bars as we passed the time on Clement Street during the Jawa's Torah chanting class.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

158 days to Bar Mitzvah: in whose shoes?

There's a hidden challenge to spending your entire career as an underachiever. In addition to the sometimes overwhelming psychic load you carry around each day, you are also faced with much younger "peers." Your co-workers, unless they, too, have committed their lives to underachievement, are several years your junior. As you get older -- and fail to advance -- they get younger.

And what David Wooderson may love about those freshman girls -- that he gets older and they stay the same age -- doesn't apply to your co-workers when you hit middle age and they continue to be under 30.

It's not just that they're young; they're also at completely different places in their lives. They go out Monday; you go home and grapple with the stationary bike. They show up hungover. You went to bed after "Lost." On the rare occasions that you join them for a post-work happy hour, it's not enough for them to express surprise that you, at your advanced age involving wives and children (and Bar Mitzvahs), are trying to infiltrate their youthful circle; no, they're shocked because they've always assumed that you WERE NEVER YOUNG, don't know how it feels to embrace the freedom of youth and have followed along as some kind of anthropological, generational experiment. Or shown up for their amusement.

Eventually, you get old enough that it stops bothering you, but for about a decade, the need to remind them of the one crucial detail they've overlooked can be overwhelming: that you know exactly what it feels like to be them, but they have no idea what it feels like to be you.

So it is as the parent of a particularly transparent 12-year-old. Every day he wakes up convinced of the singularity of his life, his experiences and the way he translates input into action. Were I a less perceptive and more mature parent, this would be fine. He could blissfully carry his assumption through each day, going to bed as convinced as he was when he woke up.

But I'm not.

There are times -- to be specific, times that often occur between 7:40 and 7:55 a.m., Monday through Friday -- when his motivations are so crystal clear and his intentions so utterly frustrating and counterproductive, that I have to remind myself that blatantly belittling your own son is no way to start the work/school day.

So instead of pointing out to my Jawa that his exaggeratedly slow movements -- the laser-like focus it suddenly requires to tie his shoes, the sudden memory loss pertaining to the location of his toothbrush -- are quite obviously attempts to wrest control of the morning from me, the adult ("We'll get to school when I decide it's time to get to school, got it?"), I turn to time-honored exasperated parent methodology: I stand by the front door and yell, "Hurry up!"

See, because I know exactly what it feels like to be yelled at by a parent and how important it is to not only refuse to budge but to appear to be completely unconcerned, as if the yelling is not the result of anything I did, but instead has something to do with other, external forces far beyond my control.

Did I, at age twelve, only answer my yelling parent in distracted, barely above alpha wave tones? Sure, who didn't? Does the fact that I know that make it any less infuriating when the Jawa turns the tables on me? Of course not.

In fact, too much awareness, in this case, causes only guilt. Why can't I come up with anything better than to stand by the door and yell "Hurry up?" If I have this great understanding of the Jawa's motivations, why don't I display some empathy and not hassle him for doing something that is, according to Sandra Bullock and her library of parenting books, "completely normal?"

Because it's darn frustrating, that's why. I hate being late. I hate driving agressively and feeling like everyone else on the road is there for the express purpose of preventing us from getting to school on time. I hate standing there, powerless, as the Jawa -- and his carpool, who share his lack of concern about getting to school on time -- methodically, seemingly without a care in the world, determines whether or not we will arrive on time. After eight years at Brandeis Hillel Day School, and despite learning of a tribal propensity for something known as "Jewish Standard Time," I still hate being late.

Oh, and I'm not crazy about participating in generational power struggles before 8 a.m., either; especially during Daylight Savings Time.

Call it a blessing and a curse. Yes, I do know exactly how important it was to maintain an outwardly placid mien while absorbing a monsoon of parental bile. And I also remember how it suddenly became impossible to talk the moment we picked up my date to the ninth grade dance, Michelle Rach. That was one quiet car ride.

The big challenge, bigger than working with people several years your junior who dismiss you as old if you don't go out with them and question your commitment to the adult life they think you should be living by now if you do go out with them, is knowing when to lay down that particular trump card. You Jawa wants you to know that you understand his plight... except when he doesn't.

Monday, March 15, 2010

159 days to Bar Mitzvah: get on the bus

If ours were a suburban Bar Mitzvah, we would have no choice but to rely on our guests finding their own transportation. It would not be too much to ask, because upon arriving at temple, they would find acres of free parking. They would park their rental cars, leaving whatever they needed -- coats, to-go Starbucks cups, carry on luggage -- in the trunk, feeling safe in the knowledge that break-ins were unlikely.

Our out-of-town guests would pick up their cars at the airport, park them (for free) at the hotel and enjoy their convenience all weekend.

But ours is not a suburban Bar Mitzvah. Temple Emanu-El has no parking lot. To attend services there is to play parking roulette with the tight residential streets of Presidio Terrace, the surrounding neighborhood. In addition, to subject our out-of-town guests to a drive across San Francisco would be to inflict on some of them a trauma so deep as to cause a month of post-Bar Mitzvah night terrors. We don't want to do that to our out-of-town guests, some of whom live in very small towns in Washington State and planned retirement communities in Arizona where aggressive driving means only waiting twelve seconds after the light turns green before putting your Buick into drive and pulling slowly away.

For us, guest transportation is a separate line item. It has been both planned and budgeted for, and it begins the moment our far-flung visitors touch town at San Francisco International Airport.

From there, they need only to take the airport shuttle to BART. Hopefully, they will have acquired some rolling luggage for the trip, which they can then pull behind them with little effort. Particularly savvy guests will fly on either United, Jet Blue or Virgin America, whose terminal abuts the BART station, meaning they can avoid the potentially confusing shuttle and simply stroll onto BART.

We have chosen as Bar Mitzvah HQ the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero in San Francisco. Considering that some of our guests might have such an aversion to the city they live near -- lets say that city might be Seattle, for example -- we are proud to point out that BART will drop our guests DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF THE HYATT REGENCY EMBARCADERO. All they have to do is get off at the Embarcadero stop, take the stairs on the north side of the station, and they will see the hotel, rising majestically like the Emerald City to Dorothy and Toto, in front of them.

We are encouraging our guests not to rent cars. How will they get to temple? By rented bus, of course. Taking a page from 40th birthdays past, today Sandra Bullock began pricing "party buses." We will need two. One, with a capacity of 24, will transport our families to Friday night services (and then dinner). The other, a much larger (and mind-blowingly expensive) vehicle that seats 55, will pull double-duty on Saturday. It will pick us up at the Hyatt, drop us at Temple Emanu-El, then sit and wait while the Jawa becomes a man, drive us back to the hotel, and then, several hours later, drive us to the Golden Gate Yacht Club, where it will sit, its driver perhaps trading anecdotes with omnipresent BHDS security guards (hired by us to do security, the thinking being that the kids have had eight years to get used to the idea of being afraid of them, and the fact that one of them not only teaches afterschool classes in martial arts but also shows up for the Purim carnival every year wearing camo fatigues and a stone-cold killer smile doesn't hurt) for five hours, then depositing 55 members of the Bar Mitzvah party back at the hotel.

For this we will pay a handsome sum, a fixed cost that wouldn't have shown up on our fantasy suburban Bar Mitzvah ledger. Sandra Bullock has not yet explored the options presented by Genentech, her weirdly benevolent employer. They may have "preferred vendors" who can give us a good deal. I think it'd be cool if they could just float us the use of one of the buses that shuttle around the Genentech campus on any given work day. They're orange, with a giant picture of DNA on their sides.

Better still would be use of the Genenbus, the full-size luxury coach that runs between Genentech and the Glen Park BART station, among other places, all morning and night. Our guests could zone out to DVDs while creeping across the city on their way to Temple Emanu-El.

Does it sound odd that we will require a bus that seats 55? That's about a third of our total party. I brought that up to Sandra Bullock while we were walking Shack after work tonight. "We'll be lucky if we can fit in that," she said. So far, we've got about 65 people staying at the Hyatt Regency.

Which is notable in that it completely colors almost every element of this event. I figured out to stop comparing our plans -- and especially our costs -- to everyone else's. We've got way more people coming from out of town. While they are not coming from Basel, Switzerland, they are carving out time in their summer, ponying up for plane tickets and/or hotel rooms and traveling sizeable distances to get here. We owe them a stellar weekend.

This means eliminating potentially weekend-ruining (or at the very least, complicating) snafus involving transportation. Let them load up onto the party bus. We'll move them around like chess pieces. They can get themselves from Terminal 3 (United), the International Terminal (Virgin, Jet Blue) or Terminals 1 and 2 (all others) to the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero, we'll take over from there.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

160 days to Bar Mitzvah: beware of the blob

After a short hiatus, Bar Mitzvahs came roaring back this weekend as Ethan Kogan-Schneider, of San Francisco, California by way of Basel, Switzerland, was called to the Torah at Temple Emanu-El. Ethan chose the main sancturary as his setting, which meant two-plus hours of killer pipe organ and medieval-sounding choral music, featuring the stellar tones of Cantor Roslyn Barak, who I can tell you from meeting her afterwards at the oneg, looks much smaller in person than she appears on the bima.

My appreciation of the musical stylings come courtesy of Boston University music Phd. Poppea Dorsam, long-time family friend and semi-Semite who came along with us to case the joint, as we'd asked her to play her cello during the Jawa's Bar Mitzvah, which, as you already know, will also take place in the main sancturary.

"I absolutely loved the music," said a beatific Dorsam, following the ceremony. She, without knowing beforehand, ended up already knowing many of the major players in the day's events. She knew the organist, who I've never actually seen. She knew Ethan's bassoon teacher. She knew a couple of families in attendance from her daughter's school, including former Brandeis Hillel Day School student (and YMCA co-ed 2nd grade basketball league point guard) Lindsay Bogetz-Gelb.

It was a fine Bar Mitzvah, even for casual onlookers like myself, whose interest was unhealthily riveted by three guests who arrived wearing matching hairstyles (shaved), eyeglasses (large, plastic, black) and suits (black, sleekly-tailored). It was like they'd met beforehand and decided to have a contest to see who could look more like a German fashion designer.

No one won. It was a tie.

Not as pleasant was the fact that for the third consecutive time, Sandra Bullock and I (this time with Poppea Dorsam and the Jawa's computer teacher, the de-cloaked electonic musician who was a bit taken aback when, prior to the service, the Jawa detached from a scrum of five foot-tall boys in dark business suits, bounded across the temple entry foyer and announced, "YOU'RE IN A BAND!") found ourselves one row behind the Woman With the Worst Breath in the World. A temple regular, she attends whatever Bar Mitzvah is going on that day and, apparently, feels comfortable sitting almost exactly as far from the bima as we do.

Since I was sitting next to the Jawa's teacher/hip electronica artist, who'd never been to a Bar Mitzvah, as the service went on I became keenly aware of my failings as a worshipper. No, I'm not going to sing along to "Matovu," and while I might mumble a few times in two-and-a-half hours, you are correct in noticing that more than once, you turned the page long before I did, a clear indication that I am not following the proceedings too closely.

As a guide Jew, I'm afraid I am lacking. Which, of course, makes me everyJew, just like Ethan's mother, the delightful Manuela Kogon, who made it clear as she delivered a speech to her son, that her being somewhat of an athiest in no way detracted from the importance of this event or the heartfelt emotions behind her speech.

Since I wasn't doing much else, I spent much of the morning watching the Brandeis seventh grade kids, who were concentrated in two rows toward the front of the sanctuary. It's always interesting and entertaining to watch 40-plus twelve- and thirteen-year-olds try to hold it together for 150 minutes of chanted Hebrew.

We're at the halfway point in Bar Mitzvah season. They know the drill by now. Furthermore, they've pretty much established who they are and how they are going to act during each week's rite of passage.

They congregate, pre-ceremony, in the front of the temple, creating little groups of what looks like miniature adults. Most of the boys are wearing suits now. Last fall, when this all began, only a few -- the Jawa notably and angrily included -- were sporting formalwear. The rest dressed themselves in various stages of sloppiness. Flood pants were big in October. Hairbrushes were not. As their own Bar Mitzvah's near, one by one they've stepped it up, fashion-wise.

Even Ethan himself, who has been known to make the party scene in sweats, Birkenstocks and an oversized t-shirt, garbed up in a slick pin-striped suit for his own Bar Mitzvah. The kid looked sharp.

The girls have done more fashion soul-searching, which is understandable to a point. It's easy to dress up if you're a boy. You may not like wearing a tie, but it's a no-brainer. Slap one on, hope you don't look too different than anyone else (unless you're one of the Russians, in which case you aim higher with tab collar shirts, velvet smoking jackets and sateen vests) and show up for temple.

First of all, girls don't want to look like anyone else. Two show up in the same outfit and it's a John Hughes-level tragedy.

They want to look good. And mature, I guess, because last fall a bunch of them made the scene in very short dresses, bare shoulders on display for God, the rabbi, Cantor Roslyn Barak, Bad Breath Woman and all others to see.

At school the following Monday, an email was quickly sent. To all parents: please be reminded of appropriate Bar and Bat Mitzvah wear. Shoulders should be covered.

Not a problem for the boys, who were already buried under multiple layers of wool and cotton. Nor for some of the girls, either for reasons of modesty, shyness or fashion ignorance. Each week since then, the number of girls in form-fitting, sleeveless dresses has been reduced. A few continue to ignore the edict. Not coincidentally, they are the same few who seem to spend most of each service turned around in their chair, talking to the select few boys who not only already like girls, but are desirable enough to warrent risking a "shh!" from a nearby parent for some face time.

The kids try to enter the synagogue at the same time, as if they were a football team being introduced at a pep rally. This is often difficult, as each week at least a half-dozen of them show up late. This week, I saw a kid give up his seat without argument when another kid -- notorious practically since kindergarten for lateness and no-shows, ambled into the main sancturary about 45 minutes into the service. The powers of teenage hierarchy are strong indeed, even at schools that practice "radical kindness."

For the next two hours, a segment of the congregation participates in a delicate balancing act. At the beginning of the season there was talk of a schedule, with parents signing up to act as the behavior police. It's worked out instead that a few vigilant parents take on the responsibility every week. I have not volunteered, other than the time I got in that bully's face for using his best fastball during the traditional candy toss.

There are kids who seemingly every week get up a couple of times, usually minus any thought of what's going on up on the bima. This week, two kids decided that the part where Ethan thanks everyone who helped him along his journey to manhood was an excellent time to hit the bathroom.

This week, there were two pockets of activity in the kid rows. On one end, activity centered around the late kid, a couple of boys who like girls and the girls sitting near them. This was their cocktail hour, and they kept up a semi-whispered conversation throughout.

On the other end, I learned late from the Hammer, two girls talked non-stop. Somewhere in the middle sat our Jawa, hunched over, his body language suggesting that his biggest challenge was not keeping quiet but rather staying conscious.

One hour in, you could feel a tectonic shift. By noon, the kid section had become a living organism. It fairly pulsated as it shifted in its seats, got up to use the bathroom, turned to talk to the kid behind it, did exagerrated hand movements during certain prayers, slumped in its seats then popped up suddenly, shifting to get more comfortable.

At two hours, forty kids had turned into The Blob. From here, they would likely seep into the temple ventilation system, spilling out onto Arguello Boulevard, where they would begin their conquest of San Francisco, starting at Presidio Heights. Watching them from my seat next to the hipster teacher, I could swear I saw them grow in size, then shrink, they grow again, undulating from side-to-side with the baroque tones of the choir as their soundtrack.

And then it was over, just in time. Ten more minutes and we would have been goners, consumed and digested by the kinetic power of the Brandeis Hillel Day School seventh grade. Later that night, the cleaning crew would have shown up and found only a small pile of kippahs, plus the fringe from a few random tallit.

Fortunately, that didn't happen. Rabbi Jonathan "Laffy" Jaffe said "Shabbat Shalom" and we spilled out into the entryway, where a top-flight oneg awaited. Freed from groupthink, the kids returned to small pools of friends. The gravitational pull of free food and a sunny day kept them from coalescing into larger and larger pools until they re-formed like the liquid steel of the Terminator T2000. Had that happened, they would have been unstoppable.

Instead, we all went our separate ways, loading no more than three kids into any one car just to be safe. Our car was particularly serene. The cheerful Poppea Dorsam made it so, so enthusiastic was she about Jewish rites of passage and the music. "Oh, that music," she beamed. "It was wonderful."

We are one of the last Bar Mitzvahs, which is going to have some impact on the kids' behavior; we're just not sure what that impact will be yet. We've heard that they rally for the last few Bar Mitzvahs, having realized that they're coming to the end of a year like none other.

We've also heard that the kids completely lose it for the closeout B'nai Mitzvot, having exhausted their shallow pools of patience and good graces (and, for the girls, light cardigan sweaters to wear over their form-fitting dresses). We won't know until August 21.

Meanwhile, the Bar Mitzvah Design Crew finalized the invitations today while I was out looking at houses in Belmont and not buying cheesy bean burritos at Taco Bell. They did a great job. Best invitations I've seen so far. Cool stamps, too. Next, says my Johnny-on-the-spot wife, we have to "sit down again with the guest list."