Sunday, February 25, 2007

Big City, Small World

People often complain about the isolation of city life. In the Stephen Sondheim musical Company, there's a line in a song about "a city of strangers." There's talk of no real community, no feeling of neighborhood. But I have lived in two different cities for all of my adult life--New York and San Francisco--and in each place I have found a tightly-knit community. I still consider my friends in New York my family although I haven't lived there for more than 20 years. This week in San Francisco, I have experienced the joys of a strong community and the care of good neighbors.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Ken and I traveled to LA last weekend to join with my family in celebration of my mother's 80th birthday. We hit the road early Friday morning. Since Friday is our garbage collection day and we left before the trucks arrived, we had to leave our bins--recycle, compost, garbage--in the front of our house. The hope was that there would be no strong winds to topple our bins and send them rolling down the hill. And then there was the thought that popped into my head about an hour into the drive--I had forgotten to cancel our newspaper delivery. This meant that three days of the SF Chronicle plus the Sunday New York Times would be piled in front of our door when we returned Monday evening.

These things are not terrible but, in the case of the bins, they could be a nuisance to others and cause us the expense and hassle of getting new bins. And the pile of newspapers could make our house a target for thieves as an indication that the inhabitants are away.

About a year ago, Jeff and Julie moved into the house just up from ours. We wave to each other when we meet, talk about the neighborhood, give our opinion on house colors, admire each other's new cars--normal neighborly small talk. But this weekend they showed themselves to be the neighbors anyone would want for their own. Realizing that we were away--I'm assuming because the garbage bins remained out and my car was no where to be seen--they took our bins and dragged them to a sheltered area in front of our house where they wouldn't be subject to falling down the hill. And not only did they retrieve our papers from the front of our house, but they dropped them back when they saw we had returned. These gestures may seem small, but to me they show a caring that you don't always experience in this world. Thank you, Jeff & Julie. I am happy to be sharing this city space with you and hope we live next to each other for many years to come.

My sense of community was further reinforced with the celebration of the wedding of my friend Erica Milsom to her boyfriend of three years Ben Choi. I thought my time between announcement of wedding to ceremony was short--6 weeks--but Erica far eclipsed that. Read this excerpt from an email I received on Feb 12th, sent to about 50 of her friends:
"We were happily lounging at Ross and Karen's birthday party and I said, hey, let's get married next week. And he said, What? And then he said, that seems rather rushed, what about the week after that. And I said, sounds great! Then we kissed each other. And marianne took a picture with her cell phone. Then I think we played a game of Galaga . . . . And so we're having the legal ceremony on Feb 23rd at the SF courthouse, to be followed that evening by Karaoke celebration at Encore Karaoke Club at Polk and California. . . . So, if you're available Friday night Feb 23, please come and join us for karaoke at Encore. . . . Thanks for being such a loving and wonderful group of friends! Yay! Love!"
How can you turn down an invitation like that?? So this past Friday evening we found ourselves at Encore Karaoke Club celebrating the newlyweds. Erica is one of those people who creates her community and keeps widening the circle. I met her when she interviewed for a job as assistant editor on a project I was working on, a series of videos for an after school program run by the city of Los Angeles. She got the job, far above any of the applicants we interviewed. We quickly bonded and she's become a close friend that I cherish. And so, I join the circle.

There was so much happiness in the bar Friday night. Not just among the celebrants, it spread to all who were there. And as often happens in communities, there was cross over to other parts of both Ken & my lives. Erica works for Pixar, which is one of Ken's clients, so he know some of her work buddies. Then there were her friends from when she worked at Apple, one of whom is married to someone who works at Phoenix Editorial, another of Ken's clients, so there was another connection. And then there were her friends from BAWIFT--Bay Area Women in Film and Television--one of whom is also involved in Mission Minyan which is another connection for me.

So, even in a big city---it's a small world.

And yes, in case you're wondering, I did take a turn at the mike, singing "My Guy" I'd never done that before and don't know if I'll do it again--it's a strange sort of embarrassing fun. . .

Friday, February 23, 2007

Have Podcasts, Will Travel

Last Sunday, February 18, was my mother's 80th birthday. In honor of the occasion Ken and I spent the weekend with my parents and my brother, sister-in-law, and nephew in LA. This meant another road trip for us, and another chance to experience the wonders of traveling with an iPod.

I reported on this in an entry about our excursion to Vancouver in August. On that trip we used the iPod to listen to music. Since then I have discovered the wonderful world of podcasts. Now I can download various programs that can inform, amuse, and entertain us on our journeys. I've just started delving into this territory, so my range is somewhat limited. If anyone has any recommendations, please let me know. For this trip I chose selections from Fresh Air, Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac,, and Speaking of Faith.

Our favorites for the trip down were two different interviews with Aline Kominsky Crumb. Ms. Crumb is a women's comic and graphic book pioneer. A Jewish girl from Long Island, she is someone who is, to quote from Sara Ivry's article on Nextbook, "known as the brassy but forgiving wife of legendary cartoonist Robert Crumb [and] has charted her own equally rebellious life course."

We first listened to an interview Terry Gross did with Aline and R. Crumb from the February 2nd edition of Fresh Air. In listening to them respond to questions about their life together I could feel the love and respect they have for each other. There was a sweetness between them that I hadn't sensed in anything else I had heard or read about them.

Then we listened to Sara Ivry's Nextbook interview with Aline Crumb. It was interesting to hear her talk about herself and her family from a Jewish perspective. I particularly loved her story of having to take her Great grandmother Sophie to synagogue each Shabbat. It was an Orthodox shul where the women sat upstairs behind a black curtain. When 8-year-old Aline asked her great grandmother why they had to sit upstairs behind the curtain the reply was, as Aline remembers, "we can't look at the Torah because we're women and we're dirty, or something like that." From that moment on, Aline would not go in and would wait outside on the synagogue steps with a book until her great grandmother came out and she would walk her home. The punchline to this story is that Aline's grandmother and great grandmother were president of the Sisterhood and raised a lot of money to build a new synagogue building. The women wouldn't hand over the money until the men agreed to change their affiliation to Conservative so the women could sit downstairs. That was when Aline realized that "my Great grandmother Sophie was a true feminist."

Our favorites on the trip back to SF were two programs from Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett, a series of interviews dealing with a wide range of spiritual topics from American Public Media. It is coincidental that these programs are also interviews with women--one with the Jewish Torah and rabbinic scholar Aviva Zornberg and the other with author, scholar, and journalist Karen Armstrong.

In the program with Aviva Zornberg, Exodus, Cargo of Hidden Stories, you get a glimpse into the way this learned, creative, modern scholar interprets the ancient texts. I can't even begin to try to repeat them here, so I will quote from the website, "[Zornberg] guides us through the Exodus story that is remembered at Passover, and that has inspired oppressed peoples in many cultures across history. We find meaning in the text that Cecil B. DeMille and Disney never imagined — about the worst and the best of human nature, and the realities and ironies of human freedom." I already own her commentary on Genesis, "The Beginning of Desire," and I plan to get her Exodus commentary, "The Particulars of Rapture." These are not books you can read cover to cover. Like the commentaries of Nechama Liebowitz, you need to study in bits, moving from one parsha to the next. It is not meant to be easy reading, but the work put into the study is well worth it. As I said, listen to the podcast and you'll hear what I mean.

While the Aviva Zornberg program was Ken's favorite, mine was the interview with the writer Karen Armstrong. She talks about her early life as a nun, why she left that life, and what brought her back to a spiritual practice. Her personal path back to religion--she calls herself a "freelance monotheist"-- came through the study of the other monotheistic religions of Islam and Judaism. It was her description of Judaism that most affected me, and has stayed with me. She talked about Judaism as a religion of doing rather than being, of practice rather than faith. It's not that faith isn't important, but that the way to the faith is through the practice.

This truly resonates with me as I travel on my spiritual path. There are times I'm not sure what I believe or why I'm doing what I do--daven each day, keep kosher, follow the Jewish cycle of ritual. But it is through the practice, to continue doing even when believing is hard, that brings the faith. The practice brings me a code of ethics to work with, a way to help those within my community and without, a place to release, to empty out the anxiety and make a place for faith. The practice is the gift of Judaism. Thank you, Karen Armstrong, for sharing that with me.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Baruch Dayan Ha-Emet - Molly Ivins, 1944 - 2007

Molly Ivins was my kind of gal--a woman with chutzpah. She called it as she saw it. It was more than just not mincing words, she was so good at her craft that she could make you both laugh and cry at the absurdities of those who misuse power. For more on her life and words, read this article from today's Star-Telegram.

Molly Ivins really became my hero in February 2002 as I was in the midst of treatment for breast cancer. At the point when I was about to start chemotherapy, the February 18 Time magazine cover story was "The New Thinking on Breast Cancer." Molly Ivins wrote a sidebar story, "Who Needs Breasts, Anyway?" -- she was diagnosed in 1999. She wrote about her experiences with the same straightforwardness that made us all see the political ironies around us. I quoted her opening to that article many times that year, and have continued to share the line with others in the years that have followed.
"Having breast cancer is massive amounts of no fun. First they mutilate you; then they poison you; then they burn you."
I laughed, and I cried. Her words comforted me, and gave me strength to face what I had to go through.

Zichronah l'vracha - She left us many words which we are blessed to keep in our memories.