We finally decided to get a second car after living as a one-car household for more than five years, diving deeply into the brave new world of computers perched on radial tires. Ten months later, I am almost done with the owner’s manual and, maybe, I will be ready to drive this thing before the lease runs out.
As you might expect, the car has sensors that beep when someone is walking behind the car or when we’re getting too close to the car in front of us, when there’s something in our blind spot and when we’re about to hit a shopping cart in the parking lot. All the new technology is very cool, and very, very noisy.
Still, most of these features fall into the category of nice-to-have, not essential. What I really need isn’t in the car, yet, but the automaker who delivers on my must-haves will earn a customer for life. For instance, I absolutely need…
Beyond these innovative accessories, consumers will clamor for my soon-to-be-patented water cannons and poop blasters. This is a gold mine for the first car company to compensate me for my brilliance.
The biggest problem with technology is that it’s developed by people who don’t get out much. Spend enough years on the road with crazy people, though, and the horizons expand astronomically.
Rosh Hashanah starts at sundown tonight, beginning the period of introspection and hope that constitutes the Days of Awe. The rituals are essentially unchanged year to year, as they have been all my life and as they were more than a century ago for my grandparents in Poland. One of these repeated rituals is the reading of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, a story that has troubled me since I was about ten.
As related in Genesis, Abraham and Sarah finally have a child, Hagar and Ishmael have settled in Egypt, and all is well, until God comes up with one final test for his favorite human.
Roughly translated from the original Aramaic, God says, “Take your son, Isaac, and make him a human sacrifice for me.” And Abraham, who has argued with God on behalf of the evil sodomites in Sodom, doesn’t argue about sacrificing the innocent son who is supposed to carry on the faith. He doesn’t discuss it with Sarah, either, even though Sarah waited 90 years to have a child and, by the way, this is her son, too.
Nope, Abraham takes his son to Mt. Moriah and binds him on the altar where Isaac, the Passive Patriarch, doesn’t appear to object. The sacrifice is about to be completed when an angel intervenes. Abraham has passed the test, the angel declares, and everything will be great from here.
Now, when you’re a kid in Hebrew school, the teachers present this story as a wonderful example of faith. Abraham was so loyal to God that he was willing to murder his own son, simply because God said to do it. And every kid in the classroom is thinking, “I really hope my dad isn’t that faithful.”
As an adult, sitting in the synagogue and listening to the story each year, you get a chance to think things through. First, there’s the question of whether Abraham passed the test or not. Yes, the angel says he passed, but that’s the angel talking, not God. After this point, the Torah doesn’t mention God talking to Abraham again.
Ditto for Sarah and Isaac. As far as we can tell, neither of them is on speaking terms with Abraham after he “passes” this test of faith. Sarah appears to be living in a different town than Abraham when she dies. Abraham’s servant, not Abraham, finds a wife for Isaac and introduces Isaac to her. After the Akedah, the Torah records no interactions between Abraham and his son, or his wife, or any angels, for that matter.
At the end of his life, Abraham seems to be estranged from the family that will carry on his legacy. Families, if you include Ishmael’s line, as nearly 2 billion Muslims do. Abraham has created a new faith, won many followers, amassed wealth, and claimed the Almighty God as his BFF, but now he seems to be alone. (Yes, he has a new wife and concubines and children, but none of those people is part of his Great Narrative.)
In a more modern context, we might see Abraham as an entrepreneur of sorts, founding a great enterprise known as monotheism and creating a personal estate that appears to be of significant value. And, like many founders, his personal and familial relationships suffer along the way. Did he regret that fact at the end of his life? Did he consider the woulda coulda shouldas that might have led to the same end with less estrangement? Did he think about it at all?
Like Abraham, the rest of us mortals make countless trade-offs on our journeys. Some are great and some minor, some by action and some by acquiescence. Some days, we betray our beliefs and our best instincts so cavalierly that we don't even recognize what we've done. It's impossible to remember all of them, which is probably a good thing, since we'd be shocked and embarrassed by our official scorecards.
That's why I always find the Akedah to be personally challenging, even though I haven't founded any faiths recently. The stakes and the situations are different for me than they were for Abraham, of course, but the question is eternally the same:
What am I willing to sacrifice, and upon which altar?
I have much to ponder as we enter the Days of Awe.
Sometimes, you need to stop the car, get out and watch for a while.
I was driving along the California coast on a day with dozens of surfers just off the shore, so I parked the car and took in the show. A few hundred feet out from the beach, the surfers straddled their boards and waited. And waited. And waited. I’d see a wave coming up behind them and think they would try to ride it into shore, but they let it pass. I’d see another wave and think, “Yeah, this is the one they’ve been waiting for,” but they’d let that one pass, as well.
Finally, after three or five minutes of this, a surfer would climb aboard a board and try to keep her balance for about 15 seconds. Roughly 99% of the time, the surfers would fall into the water well short of their goals, then paddle back out to wait again for a suitable wave.
The whole process was fascinating and challenging. Why this wave and not that one? Why is this surfer so close to shore and the other one further out? What makes this place a good spot for surfing and that other area down the beach has no surfers at all? After waiting five minutes for the right wave, does the pressure build to grab whatever comes next, or to wait even longer for the absolutely perfect opportunity?
It occurred to me that the surfers were experts in the art of waiting. They were patient, studying the specifics of the waves, weighing the ratio of potential enjoyment to missed opportunity. Riding the wave is part of the experience, but it quickly became clear that the waiting, sizing up the next crest, timing the action...all of these were critical to the experience. It was like watching a batter waiting for the right pitch, sizing up the pitcher, looking for the perfect moment.
As with much of life, it reminded me of business challenges. When is it too soon, or too late, to make an investment, make a hire, or let someone go? How do we size up our opportunities when both risk and reward are rushing toward us, usually intertwined? How can we master the art of waiting for the big fat pitch? And, after we get our results, how can we analyze the process unemotionally, avoiding the temptation to recast our experiences into an unbroken string of successes?
I had a million questions, but I suspect I'd need to learn to surf in order to get the answers I sought. Even without answers, though, the session was educational. It’s exciting to watch a video of a guy barreling through the surf without wiping out, just as it's inspiring to watch a business leader at the top of his game. Still, those feats are even more impressive when you’ve watched all the failures that led up to the success. We spend much of our lives watching the highlight reels, but the real story unfolds outside our view.
It seemed like a twofer.
The girls wanted their ears pierced. I wanted somebody to play chess with me. In the convoluted maelstrom that is my imagination, I saw a great opportunity.
Learn to play chess, I said. If you can beat me, you can get your ears pierced.
Pure genius. The girls would learn to love the game, I’d gain chess buddies for life, they would have the opportunity to earn a privilege, I would show a willingness to accede to their barbaric fetish of self-mutilation, and we’d all have a fun story to tell our friends and family. Win-win-win-win-win, or so I thought.
So each girl, at her appropriate age, took up the challenge of beating dad at chess. And each girl required far less time than I anticipated to win one game. “Checkmate, dad. Let’s go to the mall.”
Neither ever won a second game against me. That’s the sorta good news. The bad news is that neither ever played with me again. The whole plan turned into more of a win-win for them and a lose-lose for me.
Each of them explained it the same way. I made chess into a chore, a labor, a burden they were required to bear in order to achieve their goal. They didn’t learn to enjoy the game; rather, they learned to endure it. They dug in and focused and kept their eyes on the prize and they succeeded. Hooray for them.
Along the way, maybe, they developed some added discipline and commitment to achievement. Or, more likely, they already had that discipline, which they applied in overrunning my defenses. What they didn’t have, and still don’t have, is an enjoyment of the game.
And so, another lesson learned. Kids like fun. If you want them to like something, make it fun. And if you make it the opposite of fun, don’t expect them to like it. Add this to the list of items that are so obvious they shouldn’t require a learning curve.
I might have a chance at redemption, though. My oldest grandchild, who is four, wants to learn how to play chess. Even better, she isn’t looking to get her ears pierced. Yet.
Who says there are no do-overs in life?
The waiter at the breakfast place learned to read about 15 years ago, at roughly the same time he stopped drinking. There was no need to learn reading when he was growing up with 19 brothers and sisters in Mexico. As far back as he can remember, life was a continuous pattern of work, eat, sleep, repeat. What use was reading in his world?
Today, two of his kids are in college and the third is thriving at a selective charter school. He’s hoping for a better life for them, and it looks like he has found a way to provide it. I can’t imagine he’s making a ton of money at the restaurant, or that he has a seriously plush second job, but somehow he has figured out how to make progress.
He has also figured out how to be satisfied, even happy, with far less than many people would consider to be the basics. I don’t know all the details of his existence, of course, or how much money he has, but it’s a good bet he has less than most people I know. He also appears to feel luckier than many of them, as well. I’ve seen this quite a bit with people who have started with nothing. Every bit of progress is more significant for them, building on a smaller base.
There might be an inspirational book in this guy’s story. At a minimum, I find his tale to be a reality check whenever a sense of self-made achievement comes over me. Sure, I’ve worked hard and achieved a few things in life, but I can’t help wondering where I’d be if I had been born in the same circumstances as my waiter.
I know a lot of people who talk about their humble beginnings, although humble is a relative term. I was born into a family with two parents who knew how to read and encouraged me to do well in school, go to college, etc. My dad's business went under and he ended up in bankruptcy court shortly before I was born, but he found another line of work and I was none the wiser, or poorer, for his misfortune. I grew up in a mostly safe neighborhood, although I did get beaten by some kids from St. Tim's because I was a Jew. No knives or guns involved, so even my victim-hood wasn't as severe as in other neighborhoods. I don't know if we were middle class or lower middle, but I had a head start over about 90% of the world.
Later, I met people who grew up in the suburbs, in (relatively) big homes on (relatively) big lots, people who went to overnight camp when they were kids and had been to Disneyland. They seemed really lucky to me, although they probably think of their childhoods as modest, too. You gotta love the United States, where 90% of the people think they are middle class and 99% think they grew up poor.
How far we go in life depends on both what we do and where we started, a reality that’s brought home to me in almost every conversation I have with an immigrant. Even people who are living very modest lives are likely to have come further from their starting points than I have from mine.
That doesn’t make me feel less positive about myself, but it does add important perspective to my worldview. It colors my thinking when I pass a beggar and I think about what it would take for him to get a job, an apartment, clothes or credit. It tempers my schadenfreude when an arrogant SOB falls on hard times.
Life is too complicated for simple conclusions about where a person is going or how they got to where they are. The combination of opportunities and challenges is too complex for facile judgments and simple phrases. Quite often, the biggest challenges are hidden in home life and family, beyond the veneer of visible assets. Still, some people clearly started out at the bottom and, just as clearly, I had more of a head start.
Of course, I started on third base because my grandparents took the risk to emigrate here and take a seat in the last row. Like the waiter from Mexico, they dug in and took the hits to pave the way for the next generation. It's no shame for his kids, or for me, to acknowledge we're riding on someone else's shoulders.
When I was a kid, I would look around every so often to spot the people with the cameras. You know, the same people who traipsed across Mayfield all day to film Theodore Cleaver’s interactions with Wally, Eddie, Ward and June. If there were people following the Beav all day, there must be someone doing the same with me.
Okay, clearly I was a weird kid. (Insert weird adult joke here.) Still, there was something that just seemed natural about the camera crews who were memorializing the wacky shenanigans in the Cleaver household and, most certainly, mine.
My kids benefited from this fascination as I recorded pretty much everything they did from birth, both in photos and video. When they were newborns, I even propped them up on a pillow every Sunday and shot five seconds of their faces, creating a lima bean series for each one’s first year. For three years in the 1980s, my daughters were photographed more than the Royal Corgis.
I’ve been thinking about our video memories lately as I play with my grandchildren. All are under five and they won’t remember any of the things we are doing today. At this point, our interactions add to the richness of our lives, but not to memories, because brain development creates a kind of amnesia about early experiences. Most of us can’t remember much, if anything, from our first five or six years. My daughters’ memories from those years come mostly from watching the videos, and my memories are mostly non-existent.
What’s your first memory and how old were you when the experience occurred? Mine is from an event at a home, probably when I was under five, walking up steps into a room filled with adults. There was a stairway to the second floor in front of me, a living room on the left and what I suppose to have been a dining room on the right. There was a woman in a wheel chair that I met, or maybe she was just seated, but I have no idea who she might have been or what the event was. Was I visiting my great grandmother in a nursing home? Was it a house of mourning and my parents couldn’t find a sitter? There’s no way to know, because my camera crew was focused on the Cleaver family that day.
So, what do you want to remember, and how do you want to be remembered? We make sure to record the big events, like that kale salad that was to-die-for, but the everyday activities hold more of a special place for me.
I’d love to replay my dad walking down the street from the bus stop, whistling to us from a block away, or the conversations I had with my mom’s dad, who picked me up from school for lunch every once in a while. I wanted the camera crew following me when we played horse after Hebrew School, although not the time I fell off and cracked my head open, and when we trudged through the snow with our sled to get food at the Jewel after the blizzard of 1967.
I’d love to revisit the time Samantha and I made up our first stories or Morgan’s laughter when I pretended to burn my finger on her plastic egg. I want to replay the time Dylan played a head-bobbing game with a daycare classmate at another table in the restaurant, and I want to savor the first time Hailey reached for me to pick her up. Or, maybe, I want to be sure they can revisit these moments after I am gone.
The challenge with magic moments is that they come and go sporadically, usually without warning. We know when everyone is going to sing Happy Birthday, so the camera is rolling, but we can’t anticipate when Agnes is going to stand up and walk for the first time or the first time Aiden will hug you back.
What I really need is a bodycam that I can turn on when the magic moments happen, but a bodycam will only capture what I see, not me, and I’m already the invisible man in our home movies. What I really, really, need is to convert my whole world into a movie studio with 3-D capability and Dolby sound, but that would be ridiculously expensive.
What I really, really, really need is my own reality TV show. Does anyone know a producer?