Wednesday, September 28, 2011

I Just Nullified My Sins, and Now I Can Do Anything

I've been going to synagogue every morning this week, which is rare for me. I used to skip synagogue all the time because I slept too late, and then it was because my kids were up too early. I never got to see them any other time because of this full-time-job thing (you know, the one that enables me to write stuff like this, and for you to read it) mornings seemed like the perfect opportunity to do that, and let my wife sleep late (bonus points).

jewish prayingBut this week I've been getting into the swing of it. Putting aside my religious snarkiness, and telling myself that I've got a four-day weekend for Rosh Hashanah, and I'll spend plenty of time with the offspring then. Also--I'll say this quietly, because I really don't want to jinx it--the kids have been sleeping later.

Also, services have been keeping me on my toes. It's not just the normal routine of praying and saying amen. There are different things you do every day. All week, before services we've been saying selichot, this really intense 15-minute-long prayer where you recount all the bad stuff you've done this year and then ask G-d to forget about it. And then tachanun, which is another confessional sort of thing, not to be confused with Catholic confession, because when we take account of our slip-ups, we do it directly to G-d. And then the shofar blasts at the end of services, which are supposed to literally scare the living sin out of you.

And then, this morning, hataras nedarim.

If you're saying what?, rest assured, dear friends, so did I. We all gathered round a makeshift rabbinical court -- that would be three of the old dudes at the synagogue, because according to Jewish law, basically anyone can be a judge (well, sorta) -- and we all recited this liturgical thing that listed all the oaths and promises we may have inadvertently made, and asked them to nullify those things. I'd never done it before. Or maybe I just don't remember? But now that I have, I sort of feel the infinity of infancy. Like I've sworn away all my oaths and all my sins, and now I can do anything. I just have to not think about taking a nap or checking my Google Reader stream.

I have this irrational idea in my head that, just because I wrote a book with Yom Kippur in the title, I'm some sort of authority on repentance. Whereas the truth is, I'm probably just an authority on how to mess up really badly, and on a grand scale. But that's what the High Holidays are most fundamentally about, I think -- coming face to face with the stuff you've done wrong, and trying to make it better. And then, being able to do anything.

Friday, September 23, 2011

R.E.M. Broke Up and So Did I

I wrote this story. I was sort of saving it for a while, waiting for something big to happen. And then it did.

R.E.M. released the album "Automatic for the People" in 1992. I was 14. I was about to fall in love. My best friend was about to fall into a coma. I hadn't learned how to play air guitar yet, but I was about to. And every song on that album was screaming my name. Automatic: Liner Notes for R.E.M.'s "Automatic for the People" is part journalism, part memoir, and part sitting-around-and-agonizing-over-how-great-things-can-be. From Northeast Philadelphia to running away to Athens, GA hotels and the seedy underbelly of Veterans Stadium, Automatic is about a time when you fell in love way too easily -- with people, with music, and with the insanity of your own life.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

12 Steps to a Better Matthue

I wrote this last year. Stumbled across it on the Intertube. I don't know how I got there, but it feels like a sign from somewhere. I hate reruns, but this one's pretty intense. I hope you like it.

Oh, yeah -- we hit it again. Two parking tickets this morning, and one's more than $100.

Man, this Rosh Hashana is shaping up to a great start.

I flipped. It's not pleasant to say, but I felt steam coming out of my nostrils and ears. There was a very small phone, and I started yelling into it -- to a friend, who really didn't deserve any of it. I mean, he didn't write the tickets.

"How do you do it?" I asked my friend. "You're always growing." It's true: he's always talking about how he's waking up at 5:30 a.m. instead of 6 in order to get more stuff done, or the vegetable patch he's tending on his balcony, or new recipes for cobbler (I don't even know what cobbler is).

He told me: "It's hard to perfect your butterfly stroke when you're struggling to keep your head above water." And I feel like this is hitting pretty much everyone I know right now. How do the Lehman brothers (assuming there are brothers, and that they're Jewish) focus on being better people? How do we keep from going bankrupt? How does the girl I know who just tried to kill herself work on the abstract idea of "improving herself"? How do I start helping out with the cooking and the laundry when I'm in the office for 8 hours, the subway for two more, and there's this book I wrote that I'm supposed to be promoting?

Pretty much the only one I know who's having an easy time of it is my editor David, and that's because he's being played by Michael Cera in the movie of his book. Okay, stop. Not to pick on David (L*rd knows he's pick-on-able), but he could probably tell me about problems of his own. Problems that seem at least as dire as the $160 worth of tickets we racked up today...or the innumerably worse sin that I keep on committing by telling the rest of the world about it.* Everyone's in a different spot in life. And even each of us -- we're in a different spot than we were last year, or last month, or 5 minutes ago. And we don't do penance in Judaism. Instead, the idea is to constantly be moving up -- ratzu v'shuv, we call it. One of my friends just moved to the South last year, met an amazing rabbi, and blasted through Rosh Hashana. This year, he got fired and she's skipping it. I was better at doing a lot of things last year than I am this year...and I can say that having a screaming 7-month-old got in the way of some of them. (Sayonara, complete-and-uninterrupted morning prayers.) Most of them, though -- well, I spent some time trying to do the perfect butterfly stroke, and some of that time trying to sink myself.

Every year I put together a top-12 list of ways to a better Matthue for Rosh Hashana. Last year, it took me till Simchat Torah. But here's my Rosh Hashana resolution for this year: Try to stay in the moment. Don't worry about things until they're right in front of me -- but, as much as I can, try to see everything that's front of me, and try to keep them from turning into things to worry about. When Zusha came to the Ba'al Shem Tov and mourned that he'd never be perfect, the Ba'al Shem Tov told him, "Try to be less like me, and more like Zusha."

This Rosh Hashana, I'm going to try and be more like Zusha.

And I'm going to be better about seeing what's in front of my face.

* - It's true. Lashon Hara, or gossiping, is one of the worst things you can do to a person. I'm praying as I write this that her good humor, together with the faint possibility of teaching people a constructive lesson through it. D'oh.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Kosher Zombies & Vampires

Are zombies kosher? Or, more specifically, can zombies keep kosher? Asks a friend, the amazing comic writer Ashley-Jane Nicolaus:

Long story short, a friend of mine moved to a new place next to a really really old Jewish cemetery - so that got us thinking, if the zombie apocalypse were to happen, are brains kosher? Inquiring minds need to know...
I'm no kosher expert, but a few decades of eschewing the swine have prepped me with a little background knowledge. Not to mention thoroughly geeking out with random books of Jewish law.

So here's the deal.

imaginary kosher animalsYou can actually eat the brains of a kosher animal. Well, some kosher animals. My mother-in-law (who, I should note, is a native Australian) LOVES cracking open fish skulls & sucking the brains out. (I'm a vegetarian & i think she does it to psyche me out. It doesn't work.)

But that's not what you want to know. If you want to know about zombies, you want to know about REAL HUMAN BRAINS. Well, humans -- or any part thereof -- is not permissible to eat, regardless of whether you're talking about kosher-keeping humans or non. (You really wish that whoever started the blood libel rumors had Google access to give them a clue.) In order for any animal to be kosher, it has to have cloven hooves and chew its cud. So basically, if you're a kosher zombie, you are screwed.

One additional consideration: Kosher vampires are screwed as well. In the process of making meat kosher, the animal's body has to be completely drained of blood. So you know how, on Buffy, when Angel and Spike became good guys (or impotent), they had to drink the blood of animals? (Just kidding. You don't actually need to know that.)* Animal blood is out, too. I suppose there's a case to be made that, when a life is at stake,** Jewish laws such as kashrut don't apply. Then again, zombies and vampires aren't technically alive, are they?

If you're curious for more, you should probably check out Are Dragons Kosher?
* -- I believe a similar thing happened in Twilight, but I've mostly blacked it out.
** -- Notice how I avoided a pun about stakes? Joss Whedon is rolling over in his grave.***
***-- Apologies. I know Joss Whedon is not dead.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Favorite Book

Q: What is your favorite book?
A: It changes. Right now, either Gut Symmetries by Jeanette Winterson, which I've read a bunch of times, or Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon, which I still haven't read. I started it a year ago and I'm almost halfway through.

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