Friday, March 25, 2016

Bar Mitzvahs and Bomb Shelters

Being a parent is truly the greatest thing ever. I love my kid like nobody’s business, and I suspect most parents feel the same way. It’s true that The Teen drives me nuts in more ways than I can count (and I’m certain he would say the same about his father), but the real frustration is in seeing your faults repeating themselves in your child. He and I were talking about that the other day, one of those pre-dawn chats you have when you come home early on a night shift and inadvertently wake up the kid, when he’s not sleepy enough to tune you out but no so awake that he heads straight for his computer. We talked about the things he does to get in his own way, and I talked about mine. It seems like laziness…or at least the ability to be easily distracted into things that are not productive…is one of my unfortunate legacies.

As I get older, I find I’m much more comfortable with confession and admitting my faults. Maybe this is the insight and wisdom that comes with age; more likely, it’s finding excuses for not being all I could have been, shrugging off lost opportunities based on based on bad habits I can’t break the same way the patient with end-stage lung disease says they can’t give up smoking…and since they’re at the end, why bother now? But I think it’s true that I could have done a lot more in life if I didn’t get lazy.

Here’s an actual example of what I mean, ripped from the pages of my life just this past week. When I get home after work, I should be working out so I don’t wheeze after going up two flights of steps, or so dedicated to the frustrated writer inside of me that I would be willing to scribe on a TV tray like Stephen King used to do before Carrie. What I actually do is eat either two bowls of Apple Jacks or, if I’m feeling adventurous, make French toast. Then I watch an “on-demand” episode of The First 48, yelling at the screen the whole time (“Nail that perp! Nail his a__ to the ____ing wall!), then hit the channel guide and realize that I can’t stay awake long enough to watch “The Big Valley” on MyTV. I then retire to bed with my iPad in hand and find that I’m looking up The Big Valley, then Miss Barabra Stanwyck, then Richard Long, then Nanny and the Professor, then back to Barbara Stanwyck again, then off to Double Indemnity, then Fred MacMurray, then My Three Sons, off to Tina Cole, to the Four King Cousins (four You Tube videos as well, loads of hairspray everywhere), then the King Family, next the King Family Specials on PBS, then Mr. Rogers, and finishing up with searches for Joe Negri. Robert Trow, Francois Clemons, and Betty Aberlin. Then I’m not tired anymore so I play an hour of Fishdom. And by now it’s too late to take a melatonin to get to sleep, because I’ll wake up with a hangover, and I’ve totally missed the episode of The Big Valley that I couldn’t stay awake for three hours before.

(Incidentally, if you’ve not seen “The Bitter Tea of General Yen,” a 1933 film with Barbara Stanwyck and Nils Asther, it’s well worth a look. Obscure now, but daring themes for the time. And don’t get the new Fishdom game, “Dive Deep.” I hate in-app purchases to get to the next level. Just tell me how much to pay for the game and let me play.)

So as I’m talking to The Teen about those things in life that get in our way, I mention to him that while he has unquestionably inherited my wit, charm, good looks, and above all modesty, he’s also got my tendency to be distracted and lazy. As I’ve noted before in these pages, he wants to be the next Roger Ebert, and he unquestionably has the talent to do so. But I’m trying to explain to him that this means you learn to work on a deadline, not just when the flash of literary inspiration hits you. He, of course, rightly points out that I’m just as bad. So he and I have worked out a deal. We will require each other to blog at least once a week. If he doesn’t come through, I get to choose a costume that he must wear throughout the four days of GenCon, the largest gaming convention in the world. (I’m thinking Fluttershy of My Little Pony). If I don’t…well, he’s trying to think up an appropriate penalty because, as he says, “You have no shame.” No, I don’t, not where embarrassing my kid’s concerned. It’s a Dad thing.

Brendan’s entry this week is a review of 10 Cloverfield Lane. (It’s brilliant. Please take a look at The But as Brendan is a true movie buff, able to place films in context with genres and styles, when I see a movie my mind usually does what it does with my iPad before I go to sleep, wandering from topic to topic with no particular focus in mind. So my thoughts on the movie generally center around the fact that the lead character (played marvelously by John Goodman) is named Howard, which is my name as well, a point The Teen continually reinforces with veiled suggestions that perhaps I should build a bomb shelter in the backyard.

(For the record, I have no intention of building a bomb shelter in the backyard. This is not because I have great faith, as does every pageant contestant since Eve duked it out with Lilith, in world peace. It is because I’m certain that one of my fellow doctor friends whom I know has a guest room in his house will take my in, and that his home has enough tinfoil lining the walls to stop them from reading our thoughts and enough weaponry to keep us all alive throughout the Zombie apocalypse and then some.)

Howard’s not a great name. Never has been, but at least I know how I wound up with it. It wasn’t a deliberate act on my parent’s part to keep me in comic books and dateless until my early 20’s (I did that to myself.) It’s a Fiddler on the Roof kind of thing. In Jewish tradition, you usually try to hand down part of a name of the most recently deceased relative, which in English usually translates to using the first letter of the first name. So when my great-grandfather Harry Burgheim married a woman named Hennie, and they had a son named Harold, the die was cast. My Mom was a Harriet, I wound up a Howard, and my brother is another Harold. And two generations hence, when we’re gone, another crowd will wind up with “H” names and wonder why their parents hate them, too.

Just as Christians often get confirmation names, we also have Jewish names. You usually get this at a bris or a naming ceremony as an infant, which is why no liberal Jew has any idea what their Hebrew name really is. These are also usually passed down from deceased relatives, but not quite as literally. For example, your name could be Bob (and mine is Bob every time I got to someplace that asks for my name on an order, because I’m tired of telling people how to spell “Howard”), and your late great-grandfather’s name could be Fred, but if his Hebrew name was Yitzchak yours likely will be too.

As I’ve mentioned, nobody really knows their Hebrew name unless it’s the same as their actual name (think the ultra-orthodox in New York, where I understand the name Pinchas, with a guttural “ch”, really get the ladies going). This came to be a problem several weeks ago at my nephew Thomas’ bar mitzvah. Before I go any further, I need to say that Thomas did a magnificent job, even though somehow in his speech he forgot to thank his best uncle on the planet for his support from afar, which may or may not manifest itself in an acute deficit of Channukah presents this year. But I digress.

During the ceremony, different members of the family are called to the bimah (the stage in front of the sanctuary) to recite blessings over the Torah before it is read. You get called up to do the blessings by your Hebrew name, which was a problem because neither Brendan nor I knew our Hebrew names. Fortunately, Judiasm is nothing if not a creative religion (we came up with that whole monotheism thing), so we were assigned Hebrew names by the enterprising rabbi of the Joliet Jewish Congregation. I became Avigdor ben Yussel (“ben” means “son of,” and my Dad’s name, Joseph, does translate into Yussel), and Brendan morphed into Efron ben Avigdor. It could have been worse. My Uncle Steve got the alliterative Schmuel Yuel ben Matisyahu, and my nephew Thomas wound up with Tovia Fivesh Meir ben Shoshana, which sounds like…well, I don’t know, but probably something that doesn’t go down well on Tinder.

I didn’t particularly like these names. So I wrote my sister, who was actually in charge of the festivities (she’s a Jewish woman; did you really think anyone else would run the show?), that I wanted a different Jewish name. I wanted mine to be Moshe Dayan, and I thought Brendan’s might be Harpo Marx. I was told that changes this year were not an option, but that I might be able to make a case for next year at my niece Lauren’s ceremony. I’m still holding out for Moshe Dayan, and I have an eye patch ready to go. But I think Brendan may opt for something from Yu-Gi-Oh or Pokemon (Charizard ben Charmander, I choose you! Gutteral “ch”s all around.)

(Incidentally, this rabbi was great. Had a wonderful speaking voice, moved the service along…which matters when you’re the child of parents who always went to the early services on Erev Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashonah because they knew the rabbi had to get up to speed to be able to clear the house for the late show…and was really a lot of fun. He would ask us to “kiss the torah” with the edge of our prayer shawls in the voice of Sebastian the Crab from The Little Mermaid. This made me laugh out loud, much to the dismay of an old man who shushed me from under his rainbow-striped tallit that looked like something on the box of Lucky Charms.  This rabbi also plays dodge ball:  "I never get to throw things at the kids in the synagogue."

Oh, and in the Sibling Rivalry Department, I should mention that while my brother screwed up his blessings, I got mine right. I did so well, in fact, that another little old guy came up to me at the reception afterwards and wanted to know if I was a member of a synagogue. When I told him I lived out of town, he engaged in that well-known game of Jewish Geography, noting that he had second cousins in Kansas City and did I know them? He also wanted to make sure that I was going to take The Dental Empress to Israel. For her part, The Empress was a trooper the whole weekend, especially when confronted with a bowl of chicken liver…“Try it first and I’ll then I’ll tell you,” was my Mom’s response to her inquiry about its’ nature…and she was very understanding when Dad said she was welcome in any of our pictures, but I’d better not do something to lose her because he was tired of cutting the heads of my ex-wives out of family photos. This is the same father who has given his blessing to this relationship, as opposed to my priors, because, “this one comes with a house and a job.”)

It also turns out, unbeknownst to the family in advance, that if you’re over 13 and called to the bimah to perform the religious duties of an adult Jewish male, it counts as a bar mitzvah of sorts, a recognition that through your participation you’re accepting the obligations of an adult Jewish man. So in addition to the bar mitzvah we thought we were attending, there were four additional “drive-by” bar mitzvahs that morning between myself, my brother, my Dad, and The Teen. Which was pretty cool considering that we didn’t have to go to Hebrew school, we got to read transliterations of our blessings, and we got to sponge off someone else’s reception.

But back to 10 Cloverfield Lane. Bottom line: It’s got a Howard in it. He’s a creepy survivalist with a bomb shelter and tub of acid in the backward. Howard is a crappy name. It’s mine, too, which means for the foreseeable future I’m going to hear an endless stream of 10 Cloverfield Lane jokes. But at least I used to be Dan Conner, Geln Allen Walken, Walter Sobchak, and King Ralph, and at least one of them is Jewish. Could be worse. And as I’ve said, I won’t be building a bomb shelter in the backyard. I’m just lazy.

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