Monday, August 23, 2010

two days after Bar Mitzvah: the rabbi has left the building

There are times when, after spending the day doing essentially nothing -- maybe a Thursday where I wrote one story and spent the other seven hours reading people's Facebook pages -- I lie in bed at night scolding myself for ignoring the adage that tells you to "live each day as if it were your last." Which, of course, just extends my already-underlived day, as it inevitably leads to wondering how much more time I have before having the heart attack my genes chose for me 45 years ago -- which leads to tossing and turning in bed, then suddenly sweating, throwing off the covers and waking up a bitter, confused Sandra Bullock.

It's impossible to live each day as if it were your last, although, considering how unpredictable our lifespans are, that's exactly what most of us end up doing. What we ultimately get is a handful of truly special days during our lifetimes. We learn to ride a bike, graduate from places and things, maybe get married, spend 46 minutes in a birthing suite as our Jawa comes bursting into the world. It's up to us to make the best of the truly special days -- many of which don't exactly announce themselves when they arrive. Some of the time, we don't even realize until it's too late which days are the ones that are special. Sometimes, special days involve nothing more than barely missing getting hit by a drunk driver while driving around aimlessly with your best friend on an otherwise featureless afternoon in 1988.

Saturday was not unexpected. It was the opposite. It carried with it a year's worth of expectations and pressures. We knew exactly when it would occur, and parts -- but not all -- of what would happen.

For sixteen months, we built to this day; and other than seeing him learn his Torah part, we have no way of knowing how the Jawa prepared. One clue: on Friday, during rehearsals, while my quavering version of the blessing before the reading of the Torah filled the main sanctuary, I caught a glimpse of the boy-to-become-a-man moonwalking across the Bimah. It'd be a lie to say this was my first indication that our Jawa was ready to seize one of his life's most special days; even so, his performance Saturday exceeded anything we could have imagined. It's funny: I'd suspected all along that the time I spent this year yelling at him to practice his chanting was a waste of time. I just got the reasons wrong.

The flipside of having a willful, "spirited" Jawa who is incapable of being a silent, easy-to-overlook non-factor is that he is no more likely to shy away from the spotlight than he is to back down from an argument. A star is born.

There was no stumbling, no stuttering, no rushing through his speech. At one point, as I stood behind him on the Bimah, sweating, I saw him lose his place in the Torah, then refind it with the pointer. He was actually reading the thing. No memorizing here.

And then, suddenly, it was over. 185 people (but not the lady with the box, who attended services in the Martin-Meyer sancturary, so said to me the as-usual neatly-dressed Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe (known as J.J. to some Emanu-El insiders), a short time after informing me that he had found the blog you are now reading and shared it with basically the entire Temple Enamu-El staff, which added an element -- for me -- of the Bar Mitzvah as that dream where you look down and suddenly find that you're wearing no pants.

But it's not about me, and never was. It was all about the Jawa, and he hit all the right notes. No less than Chaim Heller, Head of School, took me aside after the service to rave about my pinstripe-suited son.

When you arrive at a special day, all of the logical conclusions you make during the other 364 days go away. For a year, I'd been going to Bar Mitzvahs and listening to parents gush over their children, thinking, "Geez, I just had a knock--down, drag-out with the Jawa about leaving his iPod on his bedroom floor. When he's up there, am I going to be able to not think about that while delivering a gushing speech?"

As my next-door neighbor said in 1976: duh.

No matter how well he did -- and he did well, make no mistake -- the minute that kid was called up there and threw that (substitue, my parents left the real one at the hotel) Tallit over his shoulders, I suddenly couldn't remember that last time my child had argued with me.

Instead, I sat awestruck, more impressed by my child than I had been since the summer of 2002, when his four-year-old exceptionalness got him into every school we applied to, though he was several months younger than the competition.

The entire weekend, which included a total of four events, two motorized cable cars and three hours removed from the end of my life as I fretted about the weather, included only two minor glitches. The video montage ended up at the bottom of a shopping bag in room 952 of the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero, not at the Golden Gate Yacht Club and the short intros the Jawa was supposed to deliver during the candle-lighting ceremony also disappeared. They remain unfound.

Which mattered not at all, as the Jawa, who'd been told by me five minutes before candle-lighting showtime, "We lost the speeches. Here's the order; you can just say their names or try to do more," decided instead to sharpen his Toastmasters skills, cutting a striking, completely calm figure as he delivered room-enrapturing remarks for about 20 minutes. At the next opportunity, I grabbed the mic and told the room, "Fear of public speaking ends with me!"

By the time Saturday's service ended, four months' worth of fog had lifted, leaving the sunny skies I felt necessary to complete our presentation of San Francisco as fantasy wonderland, not a place where two-liter Coke bottles are illegal. Getting off the motorized cable car, several guests were overwhelmed by the view. One by one, they stopped, turned toward the Golden Gate Bridge, and took pictures. That three hours the fog took from the end of my life? Non-returnable, unfortunately.

And of course, before we knew it, we were back on the buses. Pictures exist of the Jawa and his two preschool friends, who returned to him nine years later tall, blonde, exotic and studly enough to make the Brandeis Hillel Day School girls swoon, doing the "YMCA" dance on glowing speakerboxes.

Dark horse guests danced and spoke in loud, enthusiastic voices. My parents' long-lost and newly-found cousin/Sun City West neighbor Eric responded to the call for family members and joined us in the middle circle of the Hora. Four grown men -- me included -- put the Jawa on a chair and jumped up and down until he almost flew out, which wouldn't have been good.

Yesterday morning, a 13-year-old man awoke in his own Hyatt Regency room, surrounded by his best friends and about 10,000 empty candy wrappers. "I have a candy hangover," he moaned as I peeled him out of his bed for the brunch.

"Too bad. You've got to get down to that brunch." As if he was the only hungover person there.

The Jawa grabbed his special day and held onto it for more than the full 24 hours. He comes out the other side changed but of course the same. By Sunday night -- after an hour of opening quirky, thoughtful gifts and envelopes whose contents left us staggered and with a clear view of how great and admirable the population of the world we've surrounded ourselves with truly is -- he was already giving it back to us because we wouldn't let him make popcorn at 9:45.

Because no matter how long you plan, how good of a job you do, how important a rite of passage a day is, the next day the sun goes up, you take a shower and get back to everyday living. Today, we woke up to alarms and were out of the house by nine. He's a surf camp right now, riding out the last week of summer atop Pacifica's two-to three-foot swells. Sandra Bullock, who should be taking the lion's share of credit for the flawnessless of last weekend but never will, is back at work, talking to other Genentech employees in a scientific code language I'll never crack. I'm looking at my usual weekly workload.

Which won't include this blog. In about five minutes, I'll post this and go into radio silence as I try to convert a year's worth of off-the-cuff musings into something someone might buy if they saw it at a bookstore. And yes, Temple Emanu-El officials, I will change the names of everyone (and every institution) involved. And if anyone knows anything about getting and agent, let me know.

But for now, we will charge ahead. Our meeting with Neil Biskar, Brandeis Hillel Day School guru of high school placement, is scheduled for Friday. So as the Jawa coolly said Saturday morning, when Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe suddenly darted from the Bimah, mid-Bar Mitzvah, leaving Cantor Roslyn Barak and him alone on the Bimah, "The rabbi has left the building."

Friday, August 20, 2010

24 hours to Bar Mitzvah: final prep

One more day.

Who am I kidding? It's already here. You wouldn't know it, right now, if you were using the present scene in our house as a guide. If you had installed a spycam in our house, right now it would show me sitting at the kitchen table and the Jawa sprawled out on the living room floor, an empty plate the once held pancakes sitting on a tray in front of him. He's watching Cartoon Network, looking like he hasn't a care in the world. That is one cool customer.

We all know what's going on in Sandra Bullock's head. If you're reading this, you know what's going on in my head. But what about the Jawa, the boy king who seems to swing wildly between panic and indifference. First thing this morning, he stumbled out of bed this morning and said, simply, "Tomorrow."

The boy-who-will-be-a-man just finished watching cartoons and is in his room, building a fortress out of the Legos he keeps expecting to find boring and childish any day now. In two hours, I will teach him how to shave, lest he look at his Bar Mitzvah like a smallish extra from a movie celebrating the styles and mores of the 1970s.

Somewhere within the city limits, though, Sandra Bullock is charging around in a car holding both Bar Mitzvah supplies and our dog, Shack. Poor Shack didn't rate an invite to the Bar Mitzvah, so he's on his way to Pet Camp for the weekend. Don't waste too many tears on him. He loves Pet Camp and practically loses his mind every time he realizes he's going there. Besides, last time he was at Pet Camp, Sandra Bullock ponied up the extra $5 to buy him his own pancake breakfast. Pet Camp is a business lucrative enough for its owners to send four children to Brandeis Hillel Day School.

After she drops off Shack, she'll go to see The Hammer, who has graciously volunteered to bring several items somewhere for us. Honestly, I was briefed on the whole deal multiple times yesterday but right now I can't find the particulars.

Most of our ceremony and party-specific items are out there already, at the Golden Gate Yacht Club, at the hotel, en route to their staging area in back seat of The Hammer's whisper silent Toyota Camry Hybrid. Only oddballs remain here at home, drips and drabs of what was once a Bar Mitzvah powerhouse. These are the things easily forgotten, small in size but not importance. On the island in the kitchen -- four rolls of quarters (for the trolley ride from Tarantino's to the Hyatt), several innocent-looking envelopes that actually contain thousands of dollars, two DVDs that may look bland and unimportant but if we forget them will create a ten-minute gap where our video slideshow went, and a mysterious-looking battery charger that I can only assume has something to do with a camera or laptop.

This morning, Sandra Bullock burst into the bedroom and announced, "Bad news is coming from all over!" For a second, I flashed on the morning of September 11, 2001, when she burst into the room and said basically the same thing. So this time I was ready for anything and relieved when the bad news turned out to be that one of our guests was stuck in New York and another got bumped to a later flight. Both will be here in time for tomorrow night's party.

Meanwhile, I'm sitting here proofreading next week's Examiner real estate section, which feels oddly surreal, given the fever pitch of my immediate world. A few miles from here, the Examiner production team has no idea how this week is different from all the others. Here's a hint: it isn't because on this week we recline while eating.

Two days from now, our household now comprised of one woman and two men (and a very dense, short dog), I will close the electronic book on this particular project that I hate calling a "blog." You won't get enigmatic updates on your Facebook page and you'll suddenly find yourself with an extra fifteen minutes or so each day. What you do with that extra time is up to you. What'll be weird on my end is what I'm going to do with that extra time.

Here's how it will go: what I'm going to do with what for me is actually about 90 minutes each day is read this entire thing all over again, starting 165 posts ago, cringing and destroying the worst ones and picking out the best ones. Then I'm going to organize them, rewrite them and bolster them with the list of related topics and events that I've secretly been keeping for the past year. I couldn't give you everything up front; I had to keep a little bit for myself. And frankly there were some things that I just wasn't ready to either a) defend or b) talk about 24 hours after they happened. Besides, if I gave you everything you'd have no reason to buy the book that will hopefully appear on the shelves at your nearest Barnes & Noble next year. Or you can order it on Amazon.

It'll be a miracle if I get the chance to write in here tomorrow, which seems somewhat anticlimatictic. What good is counting down One Year to Bar Mitzvah when you don't finish it with Zero Days to Bar Mitzvah?

Check back on Sunday. When all the fanfare dies down, I'll jump back in here one last time. Come Monday, the Man-Jawa will be back at surf camp for a week before starting eighth grade. I'll be hammering out real estate stories on my laptop and trying -- probably in vain -- to drop the 10 or so pounds of inevitable Bar Mitzvah weight that shows up right about the time you also stop paying attention to how much money you're spending.

Sandra Bullock, of course, will already be in the midst of another project by then. You can bet cash money on that one.

My head is full of songs from "Fiddler on the Roof." 23 hours and counting.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

48 hours to Bar Mitzvah: reality check

What I just learned is that double-digit trips up and down our front steps are a sweaty business, regardless of how thick the cloud cover is. It only took five trips to load the car, but that was enough to remind me once again how much easier our lives would be if we lived in a Mediterranean-inspired tract home in Walnut Creek.

The games have begun.

It's barely 11, but already Sandra Bullock and I have spent 25 minutes crawling up Third Street, covering the one mile between King and Market Streets at an average speed of 2.4 miles per hour in an efffort to reach the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero in time for our nine a.m. gift bag dropoff. We'd called our contact (whose vowel-heavy first name caused not a small bit of consternation in the car until she answered the phone by clearly stating her name, probably having spent her entire career correcting all manner of name butchering)from in front of the ballpark and told her we were five minutes away.

Almost a half-hour later, we reached the construction site. San Francisco, demonstrating once again its complete lack of practical leadership, had chosen morning rush hour to shut down one lane of Third Street. I can see their logic; if they don't shut down that block of Third, all of those construction guys are going to have to find another place to lounge around and drink coffee. Welcome to the world's favorite travel destination.

A little over two weeks ago, I wrote of the Jawa's August 3, 1997 arrival. Today, and not a moment sooner, I realized that I've been repeating myself. The minute our glass elevator emerged into the ten-story Hyatt Regency atrium, I was knocked senseless by a wave of realization: our Bar Mitzvah is in 48 hours.

I think the idea was that we stay busy enough not to think about stuff like that, but there it was. After almost two years of abstract reasoning, it's as real as the Jawa's tantrum about appropriate brunch attire.

But there's not time for that. Right now we're in a little air pocket between dropping gift bags and centerpieces off at the Hyatt and running a two-car convoy to the Golden Gate Yacht Club. Our car is already full of everything except the centerpieces. That was me running up and down the stairs and shoving -- no, sorry, carefully placing -- bags full of Chinese take-out boxes (with attractive tissue paper inside), 90 pounds of candy, two boxes of candles and a few other miscellaneous items, including two bags of paper lanterns, into the vehicle; then returning to my keyboard, only to feel a wave of after-the-fact sweat hit me as I sat down.

Stop for a moment, if you will, and join me in marveling at the engine that drives my wife. In the past five minutes, while we wait for a text telling us that our neighbor Stephanie is home and will turn her minivan over to us (for the centerpieces), she has done the following:

1) vacuumed the living room.
2) wiped down the stainless steel fronts of the dishwasher and kitchen island.
3) called the party rental place to set up payment for the extra tables and dishes we found out yesterday we needed to rent.
4) called to see if our Godzilla poster's framing was complete. It wasn't, so she slammed the phone down and berated the framing shop for about 25 seconds -- while simultaneously beginning another project.

Right now she's vacuuming the kitchen floor. It is covered with Mexican terra cotta tiles, which apparently benefit from vacuuming.

We just received our text. "Car is ready," said S. Bullock, deftly flipping the vacuum off, stowing it in a corner and disappearing out the front door. A few seconds later, I heard a faint, "Watch Shack!" from somewhere outside.

If I had the time, I would spend today laying back and watching the master in action, but I don't. I'm needed, to drive a car and provide an extra pair of offloading hands, at least. Mostly, I'm just hanging on, trying to keep up. I'd much rather be in my room, singing along to the Black Eyed Peas, which is what the Jawa is doing at present.

I'm lying about that part. I wouldn't be singing along to the Black-Eyed Peas. But God bless my son. Yesterday we went over his tendency to default to rage where others might withdraw into depression. This glee -- running around his room singing, as if he has not a care in the world -- isn't fooling anyone. He's wound up pretty tight, but I appreciate how even his pretend cool is rooted in a total celebration of all things big and grand.

I just got the call. "Comeoneletsgoloadthecarkeepshackuphereletsgoareyoureadyyet?" so I'm going to have to cut this short. Less than 48 hours until our boy climbs up onto the bimah and makes his claim to manhood. Almost two hours since I looked up into the heights of the imposing Hyatt Regency atrium lobby and thought, "Holy cow, it's really going to happen!" No more time for musing or stories.

As Dr. Marcie nee Mark Bowers might say, "We're way past that now!"

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

72 hours to Bar Mitzvah: jawa power play

I can't help thinking, less than 72 hours to Bar Mitzvah, of how much easier my child's life would be if he didn't have to live with idiots like Sandra Bullock and me. I know we're idiots because we constantly try his patience. We know nothing about computers, for example. We don't know how to load photos onto our desktops and we depend on him to do things as simple as switching the TV back to cable after playing a DVD.

Some children suffer their parents foibles in silence. Some retreat into privacy, hoping that by limiting their exposure to the two morons who pay the rent, they can get through adolescence with a shred of good feeling intact. My child prefers to meet this sudden crisis head-on.

Our Jawa is no shrinking violet. His approach to handling life's curveballs is to launch a preemptive strike right back at them. Some kids go fetal, their fallback emotion being sadness. My son's go-to is anger. Add to that some impressively developing skills in the ancient art of sarcasm and you're looking at a long teenage road ahead.

My guess is that this morning our Jawa awoke suddenly aware of the full weight of the coming weekend. All of our efforts of the past year are about to either pay off or flame out spectacularly. And despite what he sees at home -- a mother busily tying bows, wrapping banana bread, negotiating with Bob from the Golden Gate Yacht Club to see if we can drop a bunch of stuff off on Thursday instead of Friday, a father disappearing for hours and returning with tales of multiple parallel parks and often tense back-and-forths with service industry employees -- the Jawa must know that, in the end, it all comes down to him; he shows up and nails it or slinks off in horror in front of 185 people.

So, feeling uncomfortable and pressured, he unsurprisingly established early on, less than three minutes after stumbling out of his room this morning wearing, that today we should think of him as a combination of De Niro in "Raging Bull," Popeye's nemesis Bluto, Steve Jobs on a bad day and Wile E. Coyote. In the hours that have passed since this morning, he has repeatedly demonstrated his commitment to upholding this promise.

The argument I enjoyed most concerned the Sunday brunch. I think I mentioned a week or so ago that, despite the wide range of personalities, cultural totems and socioeconomic status of our 185 guests, almost all have asked us the same question: what are we supposed to wear? The service itself is slamdunk (pretend like you're at a wedding), but our efforts at creating clear guidelines for Saturday night have come up just short of igniting a riot as our flustered guests try to pierce the ambiguity of the term "dressy casual."

The Jawa should be beyond all this. There was the Bataan-like shopping trip that ended with triumph in the Bloomingdale's basement. That took care of Friday, Saturday and Saturday night. We assumed he would carry this over to Sunday morning's brunch (to be attended by everyone staying at the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero), thinking that 48 hours clad in classy duds would convince the kid to don something workable Sunday morning. We were wrong.

"I want to wear whatever I want to the brunch," he announced late this morning.

"That's fine," S. Bullock responded. "Just like, you know, some jeans and a collared shirt."


"Not a t-shirt. This is a brunch with all of your out-of-town guests."


This doesn't seem feasible, I thought. 60 people did not come all the way to San Francisco to watch you eat pancakes while wearing too-small boxer shorts and nothing else.

"At least wear a nice t-shirt. Your nicest Godzilla t-shirt."

There were two or three minutes of back-and-forth in there that I left out. I was hiding in the bedroom, pretending I was getting ready to take a shower, knowing that any contribution I made to this specific argument would only escalate things. Without spelling it out, I can tell you that he was not budging, and that by arguing the point, it only confirmed what he'd known all along: that his mother was a fool.

It seemed pretty stupid to me -- him making such a big deal out of wearing a collared shirt when he'll have been wearing one non-stop since Friday by then -- until I remembered how deep a line in the sand I'd drawn over his wanting to buy a fourth Wii controller (to replace the one mysteriously lost in our house) so that everyone attending his candy-fueled post-Bar Mitzvah hotel room party could play at once.

I figure that, faced with the sudden realization that he'd lost all control over his Bar Mitzvah, the Jawa grabbed onto the nearest thing he could get his hands on. Out of the hundreds of items whizzing by, "what to wear at the Sunday brunch" was the one he grasped. He's had plenty of say in Bar Mitzvah planning and execution -- I mean, as much as a 13-year-old stuck in the midst of a grownup-sized party budget can expect -- but I can see why he'd want to make something, anything, his own; especially something that shouldn't mean much to his parents, if they thought about it.

For all we know, for the past nine years he's been carrying around a very specific image of how his Bar Mitzvah, like how once, for a week in second grade, I locked onto the idea that I was going to grow up and be a teacher, but my classroom wouldn't have desks. Instead, it would have couches and chairs, so everyone could lounge around in class.

We've seen bits and pieces of his Bar Mitzvah ideal. The rest of it he's probably kept to himself, having seen how far his idea to build a roller coaster in the backyard went once it got to me.

This was a panicked Jawa seizing power, using his default emotion -- anger -- to get his point across. Eighteen years ago, I used a barely more mature approach to get my bride to agree to spending her honeymoon walking around Skagway,, Alaska a month after the cruise season had ended.

That, and the fezzes my dad bought for the groomsmen to randomly wear during the reception, totally confusing a few of my brand-new, not dialed into absurdist humor, very not Jewish relatives, who kept asking if "that was some kind of Jewish thing," and the 1966 Triumph Bonneville we rode from the reception to our hotel. Those were my power grabs, and I was satisfied.

Come Sunday morning, you can wear what you want; if you need the Jawa, he'll be the guy in the ratty Godzilla t-shirt and hopefully something more than too-small boxers (but not those huge Walton's Grizzly Lodge sweatpants. We drew the line at that). Jawa wear his Sunday morning worst as a proud display of adult-like power? Maybe. Either that or he's just sick of dressing up.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

4 days to Bar Mitzvah: in search of greatness

I'm always going around repeating my two favorite quotes about having kids, paraphrasing parental giants Ethan Canin and Joe Mele. Canin, who wrote a National Book Award-winning collection of short stories while in medical school, was once asked at a reading how the recent birth of his daughter impacted his writing.

"This is going to sound stupid if you don't have kids," he began in response, "and if you already have kids, it's going to sound redundant, but the biggest difference is that until I had kids, I'd always thought of myself as someone who feels things very deeply. Then I had kids and realized I hadn't felt anything at all."

Okay, maybe Ethan is a little hyperbole-happy, but the core idea is strong. As for Joe Mele, he was a guy I went to grad school with who had his first son while both of us were teaching at Blanchet High School in Seattle. A few months in, we -- accompanied by our own smartly-dressed, months-old Jawa, joined the entire extended Mele family for the christening. Afterward, as we dove into an awesome Italian spread at the Meadowbrook Community Center, Joe stood up to make a little speech.

"Everyone asks me what I like most about being a parent," Joe said. "It's pretty simple. The best thing about being a parent is that by the time I realized there was a hole in my life, it was already filled."

I like words. Last week, I told someone that I didn't understand people who say they "don't have time" to do Facebook, not only because my daily investment in Facebook is about five minutes, but also because if I wasn't writing status updates to my Facebook page I'd just have to find somewhere else to put all those words. I've simply got way too many words; the more places I can find to write them down, the better. Otherwise, they'll back up, which may be why I get so many headaches.

As a word-lover, I take my hat off to Canin and Mele. I've been in this game 13 years and I still can't think of a better way to describe the highlights of parenthood; that's why I constantly cite them.

Ethan and Joe touched on the best parts. What they didn't discuss was the street-level life changes that accompany a Jawa. In my experience, the worst part about expecting a baby was having to endure the endless, well-meaning "advice" doled out by everyone in the entire world -- friends, co-workers or complete strangers. Everyone wants to tell you how it's going to be.

I made a promise to myself on August 3, 1997 that I would never tell a pregnant woman or a nervous would-be father, how it was going to be. Last week, when 31-year-old newleywed Matt Elliser asked me if having a kid meant giving up your dreams of being great, I told him how it had worked with me, not how it would work with him. And of course, I quoted Mele and Canin, suggesting that, to them, fatherhood is its own kind of greatness.

It's a greatness that comes when you shrug off all of the selfish impulses you've built up in a lifetime, not by slaying dragons or building a multinational company out of nothing. It's more evident in the way you give up the last cookie than it is when you get promoted at work. As subtle a form of greatness as it is, the hard part is that it's a greatness that is way more elusive than the kind you get when the Queen drops an OBE medal around your neck.

Tell me how it feels when you realize you just ruined your son's night by making some sarcastic remark because you had a headache and didn't feel like hearing more about Disneyland. Or when you figure there's something not right about the 13 year-old in the back seat telling you to close your window because he can't hear his iPod over the wind, which snaps you out of this awesome private moment you've been having, thinking you'd created the perfect Sunday afternoon drive, only to find that your efforts are actually annoyances and Steve Jobs has defeated you again. You know the right thing to do is to close your window without comment, but you say something anyway because darn it, the kid needs to know that the world is not his alone.

It's a balance, and I find it nearly impossible to maintain. I try pretty hard, but I could try harder.

Because it takes a ton of bad behavior to turn your kid against you, which is part of the great responsibility that comes (to those who choose to accept it) with being someone's dad. I still remember a day, several years ago. The Jawa couldn't have been more than four, maybe five, but I was giving him a bunch of crap anyway, because I'd forgotten how to be an adult.

We were out somewhere, arguing back and forth, or he threw a fit because I wouldn't buy him something, which ticked me off and made start thinking in the "how dare they!" mode of thought -- the quickest route to being a terrible dad. We were walking, and somewhere during our twin tirades, we reached a curb. Without thinking, the Jawa reached up and grabbed for my hand, because he knew that I was going to protect him as we crossed this street, and no amount of arguing was going to change that, and no matter how mad he was at me, the bottom line was that I was still his guy, which was pretty awesome and terribly heartbreaking, and something I should have not needed a five-year-old to remind me of, all at the same time.

The one day you wake up and your Jawa is 13 and holding hands is no longer a heartwarming picture of father and son, but instead two hairy guys who need a shave holding hands.

I still feel terrible about the arguing/hand-holding day, several years later; which doesn't stop me from hitting the roof when it's obvious that my son thinks I can't tell that suddenly realizing that you haven't played with your hamster all day is more than a coincidence when it happens thirty seconds after someone has told you it's time to go to bed.

The problem with seeing fatherhood as a paradigm for measuring "greatness" is that if you care at all about it you constantly feel like you're failing. The job often requires behavior that goes against your nature (see: patience/lack of patience) and the rules are always changing. Over the past month, the Jawa's bedtime has slowly crept back an hour without anyone saying anything. One night he's up working on his Bar Mitzvah speech; the next night he's making origami fish for the centerpieces. Last night, after working on paper lanterns for two hours, he joined Sandra Bullock in watching "Clash of the Titans" from nine until 11.

An hour later, I went into his bedroom. Until earlier this year, this was my habit. Every night, after he had gone to sleep, I'd sneak into his bedroom and watch him for a few seconds before going to sleep myself. I don't know why I stopped. Maybe because he's often up as late as me now. Maybe because it seemed like something you do when your kid's little; not when he's a teenager.

Last night I went in there. He was asleep. I went to pat his head and my fingers caught on something: headphones. From them, a cord ran down into the covers, where it was attached to an iPod. He'd been watching videos, something we've told him numerous times not to do.

But what can you do? Sure, I can ban his iPod. I can take it and hide it and tell him he can't have it for a week. It wouldn't be the first time. The efficacy of this behavior modification tactic is questionable. And what, my solution is to let the poor kid lie in bed for hours, staring into space because he inherited my night owl genes and I insist on him trudging into bed every night at 10 even though he can't fall asleep before 11?

Add this to the growing list of confusing elements involved in watching your child turn into a teenager. I want him to go to bed at 10. I want him to put down his various electronic devices and do something else. I want him to keep his room clean. Is any of this realistic? Should my real goal be to monitor his decisions, instead of making them for him?

Back in August of 1997, I had my own take on sudden parenthood. It was neither as eloquent nor as deep as those of Canin and Mele. "It's like someone turned my life up to 11," I said and continue to say. Thirteen years later, I've found that no matter how many things change, that's the one thing that stays true.

Monday, August 16, 2010

5 days to Bar Mitzvah: parallel-parking, Shelley Berman and the Chai life

Less than a week to go and we've lost all control of our budget. Unplanned line items are killing us, but do we fight? No. There's nothing left to lose.

And still I try, clinging to some long-forgotten budget, nickel-and-diming myself to a good night's sleep, saving pennies and spending pounds.

Should I feel guilty for spending only $9.95 on a Challah cover made of polyester and not silk? How many times are we going to use a Challah cover? Were we industrious and resourceful Jews, I would not have been buying a Challah cover today; we would have borrowed one. I'll bet The Hammer didn't have to go to the "Judaica" store near the JCC and buy a $9.95 Challah cover five days before her son's Bar Mitzvah.

By the time I reached the JCC, I'd already parallel parked seven times and spent almost $500 on things I don't remember seeing in the Bar Mitzvah Master Budget. Did I plan to start today by going into Bank of America (parallel park #1) and buying $40 of quarters? Of course not. Anyone who actually plans to do that is obviously unstable, or possesses an enormous amount of laundry.

It is true that by sending our chartered bus home Friday night after dropping us at Tarantino's, we save hundreds of dollars. And yet, the $40 I had to take out of the ATM today and immediately convert to quarters felt like an unplanned expense. The quarters are for our guests to hand over to the MUNI driver when we board, en masse, one of the quaint and whimsical waterfront trolleys that conveniently run from Fisherman's Wharf to the Hyatt Regency Embarcardero. Even as I am saving over $200 in overall expenses, it still feels like I am spending money.

At times, my odd little chores take on a surreal glow. Today, shortly after parallel parking for the third time (on Nob Hill, after waving my arms in what I hoped was a menacing way at the fat cat behind me who was chomping on a cigar in his Mercedes and refusing to back up so I could park), I had a brush with obtuse greatness and also seized the opportunity to act rudely in the presence of a man who probably knew Milton Berle.

Shelley Berman was standing at the concierge at the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill, looking about 1,000 years old, trying politely to understand how his plane tickets to Burbank worked. I was the obnoxious middle-aged guy who ignored Shelley -- who as recently as 2008 was nominated for an Emmy Award for his role as Larry David's dad on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" -- before finding out that I wasn't even in the right hotel to begin with.

I would like to apologize to Shelley Berman, his wife Sarah (they have been married since 1948), the guy I mistook for a hotel employee when he was just a good samaritan helping Shelley with his plane tickets -- because who wouldn't help Shelley Berman with his plane tickets? What kind of boor shoves past a dapper, elderly, toupee-wearing Shelley Berman in order to meet his own selfish needs?

The kind who has completed 33% of his parallel parking for the day.

By the time I reached Dayanu, the Judaica store where I bought the Challah cover, my nerves were shot. What is a Judaica store? It is like a gift shop, only the t-shirts all have different whimsical puns based on the Hebrew "Chai" (life) written across the front.

This time, as I parallel parked (#7) amidst whizzing traffic on California Street, some wag in a Cadillac slowed down, rolled down his window and shouted, "I wish my car would park that easy!" I gave him a courtesy laugh. We get it, pal; you drive a Cadillac. I'll bet Shelley Berman drives one, too.

Then I'm standing in front of Dayanu. There is a sign on the (locked) front door of Dayanu, whose slogan, at least to me, should be, "Where else are you going to buy a Challah cover in San Francisco?" The sign reads: "Back in five minutes!"

I have learned over the past nine years that there is a thing called "Jewish Standard Time," which runs about ten minutes behind normal, Christian time. When Dayanu said five minutes, it meant ten. Squinting into the fog because this summer I have either lost or destroyed two pairs of prescription sunglasses and yesterday I tore my left contact lens in half, then went to the closet in the hall to find I had no more contacts lenses, leaving me wearing glasses and hoping Eye Q Optometry in Noe Valley can rush order some contacts to me by Friday, I thanked the gods of technology for creating my Droid, read Peter King's "Monday Morning Quarterback" on and waited. And waited. And waited some more.

Finally, a woman I have for five years been secretly thinking of as "Evil Lynn" even though I know her name is "Eva Lynn" -- not because I don't like her; I don't really know her except by sight. It's just that the first time someone mentioned her name, I thought they'd said "Evil Lynn." My sense of humor is juvenile enough that I still find it hilarious, five years later -- arrived and I bought my Challah cover. Embarrassed by my cheapness and still wondering if Evil Lynn was going to recognize me, I made some lame crack about how I "bought the polyester Challah cover."

"It's very colorful, and inexpensive," Evil Lynn responded, thinking she was speaking to a very sane, not-at-all-childish stranger. Or maybe she recognized me but, like me, did a quick cost-benefit analysis and decided that the 30-second conversation that would follow acknowledging each other was not how she wanted to spend that particular 30 seconds of her life. Maybe she had other things on her mind, like whatever had taken her away from her business for five minutes in the middle of a Monday, and just wanted me to leave with my $9.95 Challah cover.

"Oh, I don't care about that," said Joe Kennedy's debonair and long-lost Jewish son. "I mean, at this point, who cares."

What I didn't say but meant was this: come on, now; give me a little chuckle, a raised eyebrow, anything. Show me that you get it: a guy walks into a Judaica store, looking for a Challah cover. You think he might be that guy who used to run the Book Fair at Brandeis Hillel Day School, where you'd set up a table and sell stuff while everyone milled around, buying books. Maybe he has a kid who might be Bar Mitzvah age, which would explain why he's randomly buying a Challah cover on a Monday in August. What he's probably telling me with his little toss-away line is that by now, so soon before his son's Bar Mitzvah, he's been hemorrhaging money for so long that the difference between a $10 Challah cover and a $30 Challah cover is negligible.

I get it. We're all in this together.

Come to me, Bar Mitzvah father, wandering Jew in a city with Jews so rare and assimilated that you can carry on a 10-minute conversation with a Realtor about how blown away you were the first time you visited your cousins in Great Neck as a teen and found that their high school included Jewish football players and cheerleaders. I, too, am a Jew, and so understand how absurd this Bar Mitzvah process has been, how you've struggled with rationalizing the costs until you've simply come to the point where you'll worry about the money later. You are in the right place, balding Jewish man. We are sympathetic.

Am I asking too much? Stupid question. Evil Lynn, being of sound mind and right in the middle of her day -- which for all I know, might have included multiple parallel parking opportunities -- instead adopted the distant, careful air often employed around the insane or people who somehow wander past the security ropes at a crime scene and said, "Oh, well, I don't know anything about that." And then she told me about how Dayanu sells round Challah for the High Holy Days in the fall.

That was it, my one shot at finding human connection in a calloused urban environment, and it was ripped to shreds. I got back in my car, mailed something I needed to mail (parallel park #8) and drove home in silence. Tomorrow is another day, number four on the countdown. By then, Shelley Berman will be in Burbank, Evil Lynn will have sold t-shirts with (Chai) Anxiety! written across them, and I, odds are, will have parallel-parked another half-dozen times.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

6 days to Bar Mitzvah: one lap to go

One you get down to the point where less than a week remains between you and your child's Bar or Bat Mitzvah, the event itself becomes the only thing people want to talk to you about -- and the only thing you can manage to talk coherently about. Everything else takes a back seat.

It must be relieving, in a way, for our more socially anxious friends and acquaintences; for the next week, they have a can't-miss conversation starter. We'll always have something to discuss, whether our sub-topic is "final preparations," "unexpected drama" or "the Jawa's state of readiness." Both meaningless small talk and potentially relationship-changing in-depth discussions are off the table. Unless you ring up a string of jokers and ask Jack to go off the board, you're stuck talking about our Bar Mitzvah.

Yesterday, as we drove home from an overnight in Stinson Beach, approximately 95% of our road trip conversation hinged on Sandra Bullock's shockingly long "things to do" list. The other five percent was about how we weren't sure if we'd missed the turn for Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and how nice Fairfax would be if it weren't overrun by hippies.

At first glance, the list is daunting. It is two pages long. You'd think, with six days remaining until the Bar Mitzvah itself -- five, if you count the beginning of a Bar Mitzvah as the moment we sit down for Friday night services (Barbara Boxer might say it begins the moment we depart the temple) -- we'd have all the heavy lifting completed. That was S. Bullock's original plan. Six months ago, she laid it out for us, saying that her goal was to "get everything done so (she) wouldn't spent the last week running around, trying to get stuff done."

As it turns out, that plan, like most of my career plans, was more of a fantasy than a tangible goal.

As we drove past the rolling hills and redwood groves, we went down the list. Most of it involved calling people to confirm stuff and picking up very small items that may have a negligible impact on the overall event but will stick not only in my wife's craw but that of our graphic designer neighbor, a crucial member of the Bar Mitzvah Design Team.

My worry is that Sandra Bullock, famous for refusing to leave her mother's house while on vacation, lest she seem unappreciative and thoughtless, will not accept the offer of her very willing and eager Bar Mitzvah Design Team members: to sprint from the Bar Mitzvah to the Golden Gate Yacht Club, where they will do a major share of the set-up while S. Bullock remains at Temple Emanu-El, greeting guests (and the lady who drags a box around behind her on a small cart while attending every single Bar and Bat Mitzvah held at Temple Emanu-El, a small price to pay for the free lunch that follows) as they chow down on our mid- to upper-mid-level Oneg.

I plan to do my best at reminding her that this event, a year in the making, will pass in the blink of an eye; and that any time she spends not with our guests shortens that blink to a nano blink of an eye. But she has repeatedly said that she "doesn't want (her) guests to do any work," so it is likely that I will be the one greeting guests and the lady with the cardboard box at the Oneg, which is fine with me, since I hate battling for food at an Oneg and will probably not spend a second in the food line. I can't say she'll regret it, because from Day One this is how she's imagined it unfolding. If it was me, I'd regret it; which is probably why my primary responsibility next Saturday will be guest-wrangling.

Will this be an easy job? All I have to do is get everyone out of their hotel rooms and down to Market Street, where they will witness first-hand the mighty power I hold over parking and transportation in the world's favorite tourist destination, make sure nobody shows up in sweatpants and a t-shirt, and shepherd them onto one of two buses by 4:30. Oh, and I have to make sure the buses know where to park, though honestly, I think I saw that as an item on Sandra Bullock's to-do list for the week.

Can you believe it's only six days away? It may become more real tomorrow, when I wake up to find Sandra Bullock not at work but instead sitting at her laptop in my "office," the Jawa's seat at the kitchen table, but today, it still seems months away.

As for the Jawa, he's still playing it cool, save for a moment last night when he burst out of his bedroom, ran the three steps between his room and ours and leapt on our bed, suddenly bellowing, "It's only a week away! Scary!"

I have another job, actually. I have taken it on myself to look skyward each day, shake my fists and curse the Fog Gods. You know the old joke that starts, "Do you believe in God?" and ends with, "Well, someone's out to get me, that's for sure,"? It's tough not to agree when the largest event of your son's life, planned August 21, which is traditionally the tail end of a fog-free month, takes place during THE COLDEST SUMMER SAN FRANCISCO HAS EXPERIENCED SINCE 1960.

Fog Gods, you have exactly five days to get it right. I say five because I don't want our poor shrug- and sport coat-wearing family members to look out the floor-to-ceiling picture windows of Tarantino's -- a restaurant we chose not for its fine dining but for its so-iconic-it's-kitschy Fisherman's Wharf location -- and see not a tableau that brings to mind an Italian fishing village but instead one solid wall of impenetrable white.

Every day for the past week I've made certain to catch at least one local news weather report, hoping to hear good news. Unfortunately, the power of my positive visualization -- already proven to be folly during a recent 72 holes of golf in Lake Tahoe -- is no more effective in willing whatever local affiliate's perky young self-appointed meteorologist to give me anything more than a five-day forecast showing half of a sun shrouded in fog. I curse them, much as I once cursed Jeff Renner of KING-5 in Seattle for his cavalier manner in telling us, each night between October and July, that it was going to rain tomorrow.

I eventually embraced the rain, to the point where hot weather still stresses me out. And over the past decade of living in San Francisco, I've always counted the fog as my friend, showing up just in time to guarantee a good night's sleep in our non-insulated home, always choosing whipping winds over the oven-like state we'd achieve whenever the mercury topped 75 degrees.

So I ask you, just for 48 hours, fog, please part and give our guests the drop-dead gorgeous view of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and the riotous ramshackle mish-mash of houses, apartments and downtown skyscrapers that renedered the Golden Gate Yacht Club's aged blue carpeting a moot point the day we chose it for our venue, way back in the early summer of 2009.