Sunday, August 18, 2013

A Final Goodbye to "Mom-Mom"

I was really hoping that I was done for a while with eulogizing family members. And although the scenario is different, the level of difficulty with finding the right words remains.

With my uncle back in February, it was all about figuring out how to deal with the gut punch of losing someone so vivacious and so young with barely enough time to prepare for it. Like the tearing of a Band Aid, it was quick, and it was painful.

Six months later, his mother has too left this world, perhaps with the great fortune of never knowing that her son went before her. That she lasted as long as she did - nearly 94 years - while in years of perpetually failing health and stricken with dementia so far advanced that she barely recalled her own name, much less those of her family members, is miraculous in and of itself. It's a true testament to her notorious stubbornness (that her daughter - my mother - inherited tenfold).

But to witness the slow regression occur was nothing short of heartbreaking. It was long, and it too was painful.

However, I choose to remember the Claire who remembered herself and those around her. The body housed her continued existence, but it was always her mind that was most valuable, which was the cruelest irony of her demise.

She was an avid reader who knew a little something about practically everything. Her daily ritual of absorbing the Philadelphia Daily News from cover to cover in conjunction to her ability to retain hours upon hours of headline news on TV ensured that she could hold her own in practically any conversation, be it politics, sports, entertainment, or the latest construction taking place on the Schuylkill Expressway.

With age came a new level of feisty and good luck if you got on her bad side and received a "shut the hell up," typically said with a smile, but also with enough sincerity that you knew to do just that or else.

But what I'll appreciate most is the relationship I saw her and my mother have. The only other maternal bond I've seen like that I get to witness every day at home with my wife and my stepdaughter, and she and our daughter are well on their way to having the same. It's one that looks to be forming now between my mother and sister, as well, and I believe it's fair to say that Mom-Mom helped to make that happen.

It was truly the circle of life, as Mom played the quintessential caretaker, devoting the vast majority of any spare moment ensuring that her every need was catered to. It was stubborn taking care of stubborn, with one finally relenting and ultimately setting the other free.

What we now have is the benefit of something she no longer did at the end: The memories. Those memories hold both pain and pleasure, but perhaps to appreciate the latter, one must experience the former.

My memories will be selective, comprising of a sharp, witty, soft spoken person and incredible listener, who lived a full life full of love and worldly experiences, a life that seemed to have simply lasted past the intended expiration date.

The moment she had no idea who I was is when I began mourning the Mom-Mom I knew and loved. Now I can begin celebrating the Mom-Mom who also knew and loved me.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Flashing Forward

As a recovering couch potato with increasingly limited down time, I’ve become far more selective lately when it comes to choosing which television shows to follow. Like a relationship, it can be a lofty commitment that requires time and patience.

Last fall, upon perusing through my streaming Netflix, I came across Weeds. A few episodes in, I decided to take the plunge.

Ten months, eight seasons, and over 50 collective hours of my life later and I reached the final two installments of the series. The first of those began with a flash forward, which instantly took the viewers seven years into the future of the Botwin family to update us on the lives of each dysfunctional member.

Frankly, I thought it was a copout; lazy writers writing lazily, perhaps because they couldn’t find an effective way to fill plot holes and tie up loose ends before the series ended.

When all was said and done, I found it to be a very entertaining show overall, but one that probably went on about two seasons too long.

However, the combination of watching those last couple episodes and experiencing the last several days of my own real life dramedy triggered something within me, as well: I’ve had quite the eventful seven-year period myself.

On Friday, my stepdaughter Jenna, the same soft-spoken little girl with the eternally old soul, turned 18. She’s now a high school graduate, owns her own car, and, most recently complains about having a 1:00 curfew when she’s now a legal adult.

Seven years earlier, we had a first “date” together at Chuck E Cheese, with a vintage drawing/picture of us in the photo booth still presently hanging on the door of our fridge as proof. 

On Saturday, my daughter Kya got to have her first extended time at the beach, squealing with joy at each new sensory experience for her: a crashing wave, the salty taste of her skin, the hot grainy sand.

Seven years prior, I didn’t realize the beach could get more enjoyable than simply getting slowly baked by the sun (and perhaps some accompanying libations) while I drifted off to my favorite 80’s tunes. (Still enjoyable, mind you.)

On Sunday, my mother turned 64, a step closer to social security for someone who looks no older than 54, acts no older than 24, and maintains a lifestyle that should keep her spry enough to see 94.

Seven years beforehand…well, that pretty much remained the same, except that instead of housing her mother in my childhood home, she for now dwells in the basement of my sister and her family. Godspeed to all involved there.

Seven years ago, I was childless, living in a one-bedroom apartment with my cat, holding a job that was almost relevant, and two months into a relationship – which even at that juncture was close to a record for me. I had all of my hair, none of it gray and the only real need in life was to make just enough to pay my utility bills and have just enough left over to have some fun.

Back then, the future was endless and up in the air, as I continued to flip through the pages of the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book which was my life.

Then I flash forwarded, and in the blink of an eye, I became a husband, a father, a stepfather, a homeowner, and a dedicated career man whose most fulfilling moments include bearing witness to Kya experiencing a joyful first or watching Jenna evolve into a well-adjusted young adult.

Seven years from now, Kya will likely graduate to conversations that extend beyond a few syllables. Jenna may have a career and perhaps a family of her own. My mother will be telling people to guess her age since there’s no way they will know she’s over 70. I may have even less hair, even more grays, and even greater appreciation for the life I’ve made for myself.

Like Weeds, I’ve had a whirlwind seven years, full of plot holes filled and loose ends tied. Unlike Weeds, the best episodes are yet to come. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Gospell of Jeff...

I'm a naturally cynical person.

I think I've always been that way but I'm sure it was solidified through my years of being a journalist and asking a lot of questions, followed by my years as a professor answering a lot of them. Without concrete proof, it's tough for me to believe.

Yes, I realize that's basically the definition of faith: belief without proof. Without that trait, I do believe it's quite difficult to devote onself to a particular religion or some other spiritual, intangible groupthink.
However, for those who do possess the ability to overcome cynicism and gravitate toward a particular belief system - logic be damned, at times - I get it. Most people need comfort and reassurance - especially in life's most difficult times - and sharing certain values with other like-minded people is a popular way of attaining that. And if we truly want that comfort and reassurance badly enough, we can easily put blinders on and make that belief make sense.
I too possess some blind faith - and at times, will it to make sense when it doesn't on face value. For example, I believe everything happens for a reason. Everything. For me, that just may be the secret to living a fulfilled life: not necessarily knowing what the reasons are, but knowing there is a reason. Not necessarily knowing who or what may be the keeper of these reasons– like an identifiable higher power – but just accepting it for what it is. And accepting responsibility that my actions and thoughts affect what happens, both positively and negatively - that the praise as well as the blame falls directly on my shoulders regardless of life's circumstances.
I must say, that philosophy has become very liberating to me.
So therefore, I consider myself a devout agnostic: I’m convinced that there is some sort of higher power beyond this universe which created life as we know it - probably because a massive universal explosion doesn't explain it to me, just like an omnipotent man in the sky doesn't.
I’m even open to believing that our souls/spirit/essence may continue beyond this current existence. That, however, does not have to mean they have a specific purpose. And if they do, I guess we’ll find out when we get to that point.
I’m equally convinced that no human alive or ever has any legitimate proof what or who that higher power is and what he/she/it wants of us, if anything . Therefore, although I understand, I don't subscribe to the need to pray to or worship someone/something that we have essentially made up and passed along for thousands of years and have done so typically out of fear for the possible repercussions of what might happen if we didn’t.

For those who do, I get it (well, except for the fanatical zealots who judge others for not believing what they believe, which, sadly, makes up a large portion of the religious sect). I understand the need for some to be unwavering in their belief of a future heaven as solace from an often difficult, confusing, and perhaps even unbearable past and present existence.

But agnosticism is a belief, as well. To be convinced of something is to believe. And I'm convinced that there are some things in life - and beyond - that I just don't know and never will, at least not while I'm alive.

That is my belief system. And it's working better than any church, temple, or synogogue I've tried so far.

My wife and I came into this world without a choice of what to believe, but instead a label. I was born Jewish (and for years, when people asked "what I was," I'd say either say "a human being," or, if pressed, "Jew-ish." Like sort of a Jew). Missy was born Christian. Both of us learned later in life that neither label truly defined us.

However, my daughter will have what I believe to be the privilege of being born label free. Free to choose what she wants to believe - or not believe - when she grows up. Free to partake in some celebrations or traditions and bypass others. Free to roam the buffet line of spirituality and pick and choose whatever fulfills her appetite (or, perhaps taste it and spit it out, as she often does in a non-metaphoric way now).

My biggest problem is when my cynicism regresses to pessimism. There is a fine, yet distinct, line between the two. Cynicism allows for questions to be answered. Pessimism gives up on that process and assumes a sense of defeatism.

Therefore, I'll hold on to my cynicism. I'll hold onto my bline faith that assumes no parameters, restrictions, or judgments toward others. And I'll hold onto hope that my belief/non-belief system ultimately steers me toward a path of fulfillment.

And if it turns out there is a higher power, I believe that he/she/it will understand.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

My tribute to my uncle.

It was too soon, it was too sudden, but just hours after my last post, the "fight" ended for Uncle Joel. Just months after going down to Virginia to celebrate his surprise 60th birthday party, just days after receiving word of his dire prognosis, and not nearly enough time to head back to see him and express how I feel. But there never seems to be enough time, does there...

Lately, I've wavered between feelings of incredulousness, of how surreal it all is, and a painful void. But I also feel gut-wrenching sadness for my aunt, my cousins, even my mother, who has now lost the three most important men in her life: husband, father, brother.

However, I also know this is all part of the process of mourning. It needs to be done.

Solely because life does have to go on - meaning bills need to be paid and a baby needs to be cared for - I was unable to stay in Virgina past yesterday, thus missing a memorial scheduled for tomorrow. But the following is my own eulogy of sorts to pay homage to a man who won't soon be forgotten:

Referring to my uncle Joel in past tense doesn't seem right. And it doesn't seem real. And it especially doesn't seem fair.

The standard response to an unthinkable tragedy such as this is that it'll be okay. But frankly, it's okay that it's not okay. It's not supposed to be. Life is meant to end - sometimes far sooner than it should - but as a result, life is also meant to have a level of suffering.

It'll never be okay for such a vivacious, good person to die so young. But over time, it becomes a bit more bearable; somewhat more acceptable to carry on. Until, eventually, typically later rather than sooner, the pain is replaced by the warmth of the memories of those who have left us.

Fortunately, for Uncle Joel, there are plenty of them. Such as:

His standard greeting of "How you doin" on the phone, then finishing the conversation in a minute flat. Although he was a great conversationalist, the phone was kind of like kryptonite to him. Joel was efficient with his words. There was no beating around the bush with him.

He ensured that a bathroom was not inhabitable for at least an hour after using it. And would take pride in this feat!

Back in the day, he also had the quintessential "Jewfro" (a Jewish afro, for those unaware), which would have made Dr. J in his prime proud.

And never made his passions unknown, whether it was his love for his Philly sports teams, playing tennis, travelling the world, cooking, politics, his dog Cougar, his sail boat, good weed (in fact, that was a great source of family bonding!), or playing the blues on his harmonica.

Or his often inappropriate but always hilarious, self-depracating, and raunchy sense of humor followed the infectious, low-pitched laughter which ensued. There was no inside voice. Yet there was always an ability to bring levity to any situation, regardless of how daunting.

That's what we need now. And that's what he'd want. In fact, I can picture him here now saying something like, "Hey, shit happens. Let's eat."

Life happened. And we were blessed to have him in ours.

So let's eat.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Fighting for Uncle Joel

There are times when taking the wheel and hitting the gas on my aforementioned goals takes a back seat to circumstances far more pressing. This is one of them.

Not much longer after I had made the pronouncement to hit the reset button and recommit to staying focused on what matters most in life, I was reminded that all of it gets trumped by life itself.

Earlier this week, my Uncle Joel, my mother's brother, one of my favorite and entertaining all-time relatives, was diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer. One of the wittiest people I know and perhaps the closest thing to a father figure I've had since my own passed away of cancer himself, Joel has been the quintessential patriarch in his home, for years supporting his two children and serving as primary caretaker for his wife, my Aunt Judy, who suffers from Multiple Scleroris.

Now it's he who needs to be taken care of and he who needs to be put in good spirits. And all of us are struggling with this role reversal. And none of it makes any sense.

I'll save the existential ranting for another day. But for now, I know that words matter. And I, as well as the rest of my family, can use all the words of encouragement we can get.

But more importantly, Joel can. He's in for the fight of his life, yet that's the only fight that matters.

Here he is with my daughter Kya last summer. I so wish that he'll somehow find a way to stick around long enough for her to love him the way I do.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Getting back in the driver's seat...

So my journey continues, after yet another fork in the road, another instance of running out of gas...another attempt at extending a metaphor with no idea where it'll take me...

It's been a while since I posted something. I tend to do that a lot: I allow life to get in the way and go through subsequent lapses which last until I get aggravated in myself enough with the vicious cycle to do something about it. It's a common trend with me, be it with my writing, my fitness, or, basically, anything else I want to achieve.

(Fitting that it's Groundhog Day as I write about this.)

I'm sure there's some deep, underlying, pyschological rationale to it, regardless of how irrational it seems on face value. But therapy aint cheap so writing in a stream-of-consciousness will have to do for now.

One of the biggest issues is that I overthink everything. I analyze a situation, or even a thought, to death (literally —I've been known to kill good thoughts by simply not implementing them. As a result, they eventually fade away). Hell, yesterday, it took me close to 20 minutes to figure out what I wanted on a take-out Chinese menu!

Frankly, I am an imperfect perfectionist. By not wanting to settle for something less than what's best, I often get nothing at all.

Instead of thinking, I need to do. Instead of dwelling, I need to be. Allow the journey to take its course instead of constantly trying to skip right to the intended destination of utopia. Become a realistic idealist of sorts.

Therefore, I've decided that I'm going to test this new thought without thinking too much about it.

What does all of that mean, you ask (or at least I ask)? Well, here it is in a nutshell: I've separated my goals and resolutions this year. My goals I see as the destination, whereas my resolutions are the directions on how to get there.

The goals for 2013 include:

- Finally planting my family and I somewhere that we can call home. Right now, we live in a house that we hate in an area that we've grown tired of in a climate that we don't like. To accomplish said goal, there needs to be not just the house we call home but, equally as important, jobs we can call a career. The lack of the aforementioned and resulting countless hours of fruitless searches have officially caused me more frustration and heartache and than any other endeavor in my life.

- (Actually, that's really it: Get a career that I love in a place that I love! Sounds simple and yet it's not.)

True, I have other goals, other ambitions, but my problem in the past is I keep on adding to my mental shopping list, which only delays the actual shopping itself.

The resolutions, which I believe will ultimately put me in a position to achieve said goals, are the following:

- 100 workouts. I really want to finally incorporate fitness as a lifestyle, as something as routine as brushing my teeth (usually) and taking a shower.

- 100 screenwriting pages. It's been ten years since I got a degree in what's become the most expensive and infrequent hobby of my life. It's time to complete something or perhaps just cut my losses. I'm banking on the former.

- 10 books completed. For those who can't tell, I have ADD. It takes a lot for me to stay involved in a book or piece of literature. Hence, the stack of about eight half-read books by my bedside table. But on those rare occasions when I find one which reels me in from cover to cover, it's an awesome experience. I'd like to have those experiences with more regularity. Good for the mind, good for the soul.

- 50 of these entries. There is certainly a lot on my mind I'd like to share. I've got plenty of documented thoughts scattered all over my laptop. I've got plenty more which need to be harnessed. If any of my insights strike a nerve, inspire, amuse, entertain, or otherwise engage anyone else reading them, that would be great.

But more importantly, but centralizing it all and getting to the finish line - with this and with all the other goal(s) and resolutions that I've mentioned - would serve as a testament that I finally accomplished what I set out to do, that I left no stone left unturned, that I can be proud that I overcame the mental roadblocks, took the detours immersed with gridlock and despair, and arrived at the intended destination a better man for it.

And that? That would be perfection in my book.

So, I'm one month into what I still believe will be a year to remember. I'm not full speed but the wheels are turning and I acknowledge this. Feel free to hop along for the ride and see how far I can take this metaphor!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Biting the bullet...

Another day in America. Another needless tragedy at the hands of a gunman.

And although it's "people who kill people" and not their weapon of choice, I haven't heard of any knifing or stoning epidemics occuring in our nation. At least not for the last couple centuries or so.

Even then, no knife or stone would take out a couple dozen innocent children in a matter of minutes, at the hands of one person.

In a perfect world, humans would learn to use its words when faced with conflict. In a better world, in times when a violent act seems somehow justifiable in our minds, we can concurrently reason with ourselves to at least use non-lethal means to achieve the act. In a somewhat functional world, an emphasis on catering to one's mental health will take precedence over all else.

But, sadly, we live in none of the above. Therefore, to search for a resolution aimed to achieve any of that - at least at this time in our history - is unrealistic.

Therefore, in lieu of suggesting the complete elimination of firearms, which would fall upon deaf ears (and, ironically, probably lead to a violent citizen uprising), I'd like to propose a common-sense compromise. It may seem simplistic in nature, but sometimes in life, efficiency is effective. Work smarter, not harder, right?

What I'm about to propose will save thousands of lives every year and instantly reform a nation that has an incredibly disturbing, insatiable appetite for lethal weapons, one which dwarfs any other civilized country on the planet:

- Mandatory minimum two week waiting period on all firearm purchases, during which time a background check is conducted. Have you ever been pissed and someone or something, thought irrational thoughts, then had some time to cool down and ultimately saw things more clearly again? Of course you have.

- Mandatory gun safety and responsibility course to be completed (and perhaps they already have this to obtain a license. But if they don't, that baffles me. One needs to take driver's ed for a driver's license, and those are only used for weapons a small percentage of the time, whereas a gun's sole purpose is to be a weapon. It's not a very practical paper weight.).

- Ban all automatic weapons. For those pro-NRA, pro-2nd ammendment fanatics who are opposed to this, please tell me why. If it's simply to provide equal footing for every citizen, where is the line drawn? Grenades? WMDs? When can we eliminate the need for the upper hand? And for the hunters out there, taking down a buck with an oozie doesn't seem very sporting.

Will this stop all of these horrific acts we're forced to see on the news from happening? Not at all, just like driver's education courses don't weed out every terrible driver who puts others on the road at risk. (Trust me - I've lived in New Jersey and Florida for most of my life, so I've rolled the dice most times I pull out of my driveway). Will it save many? Or even one, without threatening the security of anyone else? I don't see how it couldn't.

Three simple rules and thousands of lives spared. Tens of thousands of others spared the trauma and tragedy. So many others with a peace of mind which dissipates a little more every time we check the news and see the vicious cycle start over again, negating the opportunity for those who perished needlessly to at least serve as benchmark for the continued evolution of humanity.

But until that happens, it'll just be another day in America, where we pride ourselves on being a standard-bearing society and somehow eat the bullshit we manufacture with no hesitation...