Dear Friend

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Based on a true story…

Dear Friend,

It was so nice to see you the other day. We went for coffee at our favorite spot, you know the place with all the aproned baristas and the goodly smells? Of course you do, it’s your favorite. As we sat there, we spoke of life and friendship things, Instagram and philosophy. We sipped coffee. I said a joke and you laughed. Ok, maybe you smiled. And then I noticed something stuck in your teeth. I couldn’t tell what it was, it was so quick, so I said another joke to get you to smile again. It was a good one, and it definitely made you laugh this time, I’m sure of it. Because I caught a good look that time. It was brownish, like the mortar paste of a chewed peanut. Or maybe the remnants of a recently enjoyed cookie. Then, shame paralyzed me, and I did not do my duty. I did not notify you of the food debris lodged in your tooth crevice. I was cowardly. You were jamming off my joke, and I smiled appreciatively, but I kept my lips shut. I was running my tongue over my teeth self-consciously, just in case I had something, too. See, I was gearing up to tell you, but I couldn’t. Something about it was too weird. What was this awkwardness? It’s akin to the awkwardness that causes two friends to ignore a tiny projectile of saliva that might launch from one’s mouth in the course of talking. Both conversants simply ignore it: the spitter mortified, and the spat-upon sparing his friend embarrassment.

Dear friend, I want you to know that while my motivations were not so noble, they were not ignoble either. I fervently hoped that each swish of coffee you drank would flush that stubborn crumb down your hatch, but it was not to be. The minutes dragged on, and the conversation lulled, and you yawned theatrically to signal the passing time, and the brown crumblet was still there. Dear friend, you must know that I was sure you’d soon encounter a mirror, and discover the offensive food particle on your own. As we stood up to leave, you wished me a good rest of my day, and there it was still, clinging fiercely to your gums. I returned the sentiment, but I knew my goodwill was lacking. Guilt tainted my words, but you did not notice. “Let’s do this again sometime,” you said, and I nodded meekly. I would still like that.

Sincerely,
Your friend

Birthday Cake

Blog Entries, Essays

Throughout my years of attending birthdays, I will posit that all cakes can fit safely and neatly into a few general categories:

#1 — Oh, It’s Birthday Cake

This first category is basically the industry standard. It’s the type of cake with frosting and scripty lettering; the icing forms decadent flowers and artistic flourishes. At its core, the cake itself is either brown or yellow, but that’s not to say chocolate or vanilla because the taste is either too rich and sweet, or else completely bland; the texture is chalk-dry and yet greasy. There are too many air bubbles, making it feel like you’re eating chemical frosting floating in the clouds, or a layer of soap, that description dependant on how much you like the birthday boy/girl. It’s standard birthday cake, and it sucks.

#2 — Wait, Hold On, That’s Actually Good Cake

Then there’s the type of cake (usually homemade) that the first obligatory nibble becomes something of a moment of pleasant discovery: that it is in fact really tasty stuff. You might find yourself going back for a second piece, which in itself is remarkable, because you had been going strong on your diet for three months. You’ll scoop that piece onto the festive-print paper plate, hidden under a matching (and quite useless, you’ll agree) napkin, intending to eat it later, slowly. But shock has numbed your impulse control. Then you go for thirds. If anyone asks, you’re ready to tell them that you’re taking this additional piece for a friend. In a way, you are.

#3 — What-Were-You-Thinking Cake*

A well-deserving third category, this is the sort of cake that demands an entirely different response than polite acceptance/decline, or feverish frenzy. The first reaction is, “What were you thinking?”

I’m talking carrot cake. Strawberry jelly stuff that jiggles and causes instant lightheadedness from the sugar rush. Paleo brownies that taste like tar. ‘Slightly burnt’ granola-oatmeal concoctions that require a chisel and a skilled foreigner to extract the edible portions. The sorts of creations that cause people to talk softly to the creator and offer cryptic recommendations for homeopathic remedies, saying it’ll really ease the stress — whatever that’s supposed to mean — and they line up for thirds with sympathetic eyes even though they’re strict carnivores and shouldn’t be eating anything vegetarian but they just can’t resist one more bite. 


*Thanks to Moshe Delerb of The Long Short Way for bringing this to my attention

Blessing on the Mango

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It is with humble gratitude that I offer thanks to the One Who is Most High, King of all Kings and indeed of all things, viz. hidden and revealed, Above and Below, G-d Himself and no other, for there is no other like Him nor unlike Him who can be compared or not compared, for he alone created Heaven and Earth and all that is in them —

— with the inclusion of this here mango, whose juices flow from its plump circumference with beneficent abundance, whose rich and tasteful meat-flesh has thusly been deposited into my open and grateful maw, and whose nutritional properties will certainly sustain me throughout the indeterminate duration of the —

— prayers that follow this event of ingestion, this act of consumption; whose sugars will excite me to exclaim aloud my rapture for His Creations; whose yellow radiance will inspire visions of His Divine Light as I enumerate and delineate that for which I am eternally and internally thankful and hold in appreciation, and am in general and in particular in many ways —

— seen and unseen by some or all… totally or partially undeserving of, for my words and thoughts and actions are wholly inconsistent at times with the true emotions and deep contemplations of my mind and heart, which are, once again and for all time, represented by the homely and comely shape of that splendid fruit, the mango…

(Amen.)

Labyrinth

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Pisky Pisky was bitter. He couldn’t see a bigger picture to life. He was just a mouse, and all he did was chase after cheese. It took a while to find it, through twisting, turning alleyways, but it was satisfying in the end. He liked cheese.

Pisky Pisky (or just ‘Pisky’ for short) sort of knew that there was more to life than the labyrinth, but it was an abstract idea, a vague concept that only got fuzzier with repetition. The Maze was life. Every day, there was cheese to chase. Pisky wasn’t the best cheese seeker, but he did try. His nose was good, but he had trouble following the path to the cheese. He kept lunging headfirst into stone walls, unyielding. It was very frustrating. He could smell cheese behind this wall, right around that corner. But always, he was stopped short by a wall. It seemed like his only option was to totally and utterly ignore his instincts. He had to let go of the urge to claw through the wall (it never worked), and go back the way he came, though it was farther from his goal. Perhaps there would be another path.

As the scent of cheese grew fainter, Pisky was struck with a feeling of deep sadness and fear. His fear was the fear of losing the scent. And the sadness was a deep hopelessness. Cheese always seemed within his grasp, yet there was an insurmountable obstacle in his way every time.

Pisky was very hungry, but he began to take a certain pride in the pain he endured. The cheese was clearly unattainable, and he wouldn’t be the fool to claw at the walls when there was no hope. He developed a bitter pity for himself. He hadn’t asked for this life, he reminded himself, as the little mousy tears gathered in his eyes.

He was very weak. With his waning strength he dragged himself to as distant a corner of the Maze he knew of and collapsed in a sobbing bundle of fur and bones. The smell of cheese was so far away it was almost a memory, but the gaping hole in his stomach was real and bottomless. But Pisky ignored it. He was numb to it now. He didn’t even want cheese anymore — who even did? — and his vengeful tears were free-flowing. It was the unfairness of it all, the injustice! Someone was responsible. Someone had caused this to happen. If only he know who was to blame, Pisky hoped they felt guilty. And with this last triumphant thought, this bittersweet moment of shallow victory within his defeat, the mouse called Pisky Pisky died.

 


(Written in response to this daily prompt: Someday )

The Fulton Street Drummer

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He’s not just a busker. He not in it for the money. It’s the music that he cares about; it’s what drives him to play the beat that he alone can hear. That only he can feel, which runs along in his head and clamors to get out, to be set free, so he sets up his drums by the A/C/E platform and plays.

His set consists of three overturned buckets, and deep welts on them show evidence of the hard plastic’s deep familiarity with his third-hand drumsticks. With feverish intensity he pounds out his song, only it’s not a song but a frequency, a pulse in the air that he gives life to. He’s the heart pumping blood to the extremities, to the bowels of the New York subway.

Yet, despite the gravity of his position, the Fulton Street Drummer seems to genuinely enjoy himself. He’s smiling, though his eyes are mostly closed in that blissful way of those entranced. There’s a slight sheen on his face. It seems to be sweat from exertion, or perhaps an inner flow that radiates outwards. He knows his work is vital; he’s spreading the message. If he looks up — and he doesn’t, ever, but if he did — he’d see commuters bobbing their heads, tapping their feet in time with the rhythm. He doesn’t see them, but he doesn’t have to. He knows. He can feel their vibes bouncing back to him. He can feel their energy responding to his, and in turn he responds to them, mirroring their reflection, echoing their echo. He plays and plays. Nothing can stop him. After all, the Fulton Street Drummer is not just a busker.

Mickey

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Mickey wasn’t his real name, but that was what he’d always been called. He didn’t know his real name. At some point, it didn’t really matter anymore, right? Who knew what his biological mother had called him? And honestly, who cared? Names were arbitrary designations useful for distinguishing one person from the next. A personal title, something to write on a nametag. Mickey was past caring that he didn’t have an official paper to document his birth name, but what did bother him was his lack of birthday. With his name, he had just been given another, but with his birthday, despite his foster mom’s best intentions, the new one didn’t quite stick. For the first few years since the adoption, Mickey enjoyed the attention thrown his way, sang along with “Happy Birthday to you”, blew out four, five, six candles on the cake, and made wishes for silly things. But something rang false at these parties, the cake tasted just too sweet… Even as a kid Mickey knew it was all pretend.

The orphanage had not known his real age, and the number of candles each year was the result of a guess. When he realized that March 17th was actually the date his foster mother had miscarried, the game was up. On what everyone pretended was his eighth birthday, Mickey looked into her eyes and said stonily, “I’m not your dead son.” He spent the rest of the day in his room crying, though not as hard as his foster mom did. After that, there were no more parties, even when she cautiously brought it up: “What day would you like to celebrate as your day, Mickey?” He didn’t have a good answer for that. He was being given a choice of any birthday in the year, and for a moment, January 1st was tempting—a clean slate, his ignorance corresponding to a new beginning. But it wouldn’t solve the problem. Birthdays anchor a person to the world within the objective, impersonal sea of time. Picking a day would not solve anything; he would still be adrift. Instead, Mickey did away with birthdays altogether, surrendering to the greater concept of time itself. There was no day for him to feel special, no anniversary of his first moment; of being, briefly, the youngest human, the newest arrival; nobody paid him attention that he hadn’t deserved by his own merit.

A consequence of this was that Mickey gradually lost track of what age he was supposed to be, which wasn’t difficult because he’d never been sure. He had little patience for his foster parents trying to do the math by comparing him to kids in his grade. “Let’s see, if Joey McCormack just turned fifteen; that means you have to be at least as old. I mean, you’re taller than him already… Your jeans are too short on you; we’ll need to buy some new ones…”

But Mickey tuned out these attempts. He was past his own age. He had moved onto bigger things: Time itself. It became an obsession. The only novels he read were exclusively in the genre of time-travel science fiction, and soon enough he started pursuing the philosophy of time, from Relativity to String Theory, devouring everything he could. His questions were ponderous: Why was an hour sixty minutes? Why not one hundred? And he spent many hours thinking of the answer. He grew sensitive to the changing seasons, and he spent hours out in the woods with his eyes closed, counting seconds and measuring his breath, until guessing the time was a habit he developed with increasing accuracy.

Despite the tenuous relationship they had with him, his foster parents found they had an easy task of selecting gifts for Mickey. Any book on time was appreciated, as well as little knick-knacks: sundials, hourglasses, and lately: watches. Mickey had three watches for each day of the week (which he changed every eight hours, naturally), unless there was a special occasion, for which he had a special watch. For example, when he took his SATs he wore a brand new Seiko for good luck. He had classic watches with analog faces, modern digital watches encrusted with buttons and indicators, smart watches whose faces would change based on his mood, and hybrids that were combinations of all of those. Some watch faces were quite cluttered, others were bare but for their minute and hour hands, and all boasted of some level of water resistance.

There was even an attempt at humor with a gift watch from his foster dad. It had the face of Disney’s most famous mouse; Mickey wasn’t amused. He didn’t throw it out though… he took time more seriously than that. In college he enrolled in some yoga and meditation classes, though his official major was History. He didn’t drink—his ID being an object of deep personal shame, documenting the lie of his fake birthday that his foster mother had decided upon when she’d adopted him. Besides, he wasn’t a partier. He cared deeply for meditation and living in the moment, managing to graduate a full year early despite his grueling schedule. His degree was useless, however, for his goal was loftier than materiel success: he wanted to become one with time itself, not bound by its rules; he wanted to transcend it.

He said goodbye to his foster parents and moved to Nepal to study from the monks there. He left his watches behind. He didn’t need them anymore. It was in Nepal that Mickey shed his name, brushing it like dandruff from his shoulder: an unwanted burden. From the monks he learned patience. Time slowed. The river of his life flowed on, but in his mind, he who was once Mickey could not often discern his individual existence from the Whole.

He lived for many years, but he didn’t count them, and they did not count him. When his final day came he was as still as a statue, unmoving, not even a ripple in the wind. His life’s river met the sea, and it swallowed him with its great embrace.

Another Morning in 770

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It’s morning, for now anyway. Talis and tefillin all around me – Shacharis in 770. The labored breathing of the A/C competes with murmured prayers and chazzans’ voices. Mostly, the A/C wins. The disgruntled make their rounds. Tzedakah. Guilt. Sorry, no cash. Averted eyes. Guilt. White brick wall, tables and benches caked with 7 layers of peeling Advil-colored paint. Coffee cups, garbage dumps. A hall full of bathroom stalls like a maze; a flush a minute, maybe more. The receding echo of a washing cup being filled, time to say thank you G-d, and isn’t ‘orifice’ a curious word? The entryway, people coming, people going, tissue throwing with now-dry hands, wet hair from mivka, Israeli banter, 1414 haircuts. Custom minyans: choose your cantor. Partitions, minyan cubicles. The hidden baal korehs amongst us, Torah spies; kohanim too, whose identity is revealed as the need arises. Fans whirring, blowing that 770 air around, spreading that 770 smell so it’s in your clothes, so it’s clinging to your hair. The smell of used books and neglected wood, and people. Some homeless, some cologned, most with stale coffee breath-

Stand as one in sudden kedusha salute, raising heels and answering in unison like a flash mob. Tefillin piles. Books and books. Stacked this way and that. A mound of books, a bag of week-old pastries, someone’s talis. Beard hairs on the floor. Black ones, brown ones, gray ones. Orange ones. White and blond hairs. A distracted habit, these signs of stress are everywhere, everywhere. Follicles, every step I take. Another curious word. Hairs in between the pages. Faded siddur covers bound with duct tape. The hoofbeat of tefillin boxes clapping shut, a cell phone rings. Talis-over-shoulder conversations, closed-eyed meditation. The woodpecker tap-tap-tapping of the bench fixer, fighting the good fight. The three step shuffle, I’m in the way, have to clear the bench to let someone through. The slap of the folding bench and oh, the shin’s pain from colliding with a bench’s metal frame. Vague rumbles of the 3 train. Just another day in 770.

No Matter Why

Blog Entries, Essays

Something I’ve noticed is that big companies promote their products with promises of meaning. Verizon may have done it best with their tagline: “Better matters.” Better mobile service, internet; more efficiency, go with us, we’re the better brand. And better matters. This is important.

Verizon

Mazda has a slightly vaguer message. They say, “Driving matters”. Does driving matter? This is trickier territory. Mazda believes it does, or at least wants you to think so. It’s important and meaningful, and ostensibly, Mazda takes it seriously too. Therefore, you should buy a Mazda.

Mazda.jpg

ConEdison is an energy company, and it makes sense that of any industry, they would be the one to mess this up. Deliciously ugly: “Everything matters.” In fact, they have a whole ad campaign with things like “Sunday Matters”, “Inspiration Matters” or “Trust Matters” as the headlines, with the ConEdison logo and tagline on the side. They’re like the unpopular kids at the tagline party who get good grades in school because they’re nerds but have no style and definitely no original tagline. And since “____ matters” is in, they run up, double-chin bouncing, whining, “Don’t forget about us! We’re cool, too!” Fumbling, catching their breath, wheezing – “Stuff matters! Things matter! EVERYTHING MATTERS.”

Con Ed

So sure Verizon and Mazda are giving ConEdison death looks, because hey, they just totally killed their vibe, am I right? Saying everything matters means that nothing really does. Everything has its place, but there must be a hierarchy of value for us to live lives and make conscious choices.

I don’t like the direction that these taglines take. It used to be, “We offer kick-ass mobile service”, and “We make sweet cars”. And that was…

What’s that ConEdison? You what? Speak up. “We sell lots of energy.”

Ah – ok. Thank you. Anyway, that used to be good enough. You needed a product, you picked your choice from the competition (assuming a free market economy) and life goes on. What’s with this “Blah blah blah matters?”

Advertising is nothing new. The thing I’m objecting to is that they’re targeting our values. It’s subtle, but if you just let an idea like potentially better mobile service having value sit in your head, it will have value. Driving will have value, if you let it be a repetitive tagline in your head.

The only time a tagline like that should be used is in art shops, where “Framing Matters” can be a whimsical pun that artsy types can get away with.

The Reaction

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The excitement’s in my eyes as I say, “You have to see this.” I steer you to the phone or the computer where the video begins to play. I hide the title, of course. Why would I want to ruin the surprise? The video starts. All the while I am silent. If the video is funny, I am ready with my self-control to hold back laughter. Maybe you laugh, maybe not. Maybe the video is serious, and the self-control is not required for something humorous, but shocking instead.

The video ends. The air is thick with expectation. There’s a sticky silence that might as well be filled with, “Well, did you like it?”

But I say nothing. In fact, I’m holding my breath. Perhaps you are, too. And then the crucial moment, when you realize your time has come, that your reaction cannot be delayed any longer. Your opinion is demanded. You can hear your heart beat in your neck. Prickly drops of sweat tickle your forehead. My eyes are piercing, looking right at you, seeing through politeness, demanding the truth on pain of death, if the criticism is indeed that harsh. The lights dim; the room gets hot. The static buzz of electricity –