… And we’re back.

Well, here’s the column. NOW I can go on. ;-)

How I spent my summer vacation

By Neal Ross

Monday night, I told Ann, “When I go back to work tomorrow, the medical hell of the past three months will be only a memory.”

And so, amazingly, it is.

I?m not trying to minimize it ? two isolating months of cancer (diagnosis, surgery and recovery) followed by an unexpected month of incapacitating, thyroid-related vision problems. But before you ask, I?m fine now. (As fine as any of us can ever be, anyway.) The cancer was treatable, the surgery was successful, and the more horrifying (to me) thyroid condition is, so far, responding to steroid therapy. I?m indebted to the 21st century?s remarkable medical technology, which can often see inside our bodies, find small problems before they mushroom, and occasionally fix them. I?m also indebted to, and grateful for, the unconditional love, support and care I received from so many of the people reading this. But I wouldn?t still be here without Ann, who heroically dealt with everything I dealt with during the last three months ? plus the crushing mixture of helpless frustration common to family caregivers everywhere.

Let?s face it: if you?ve been there (and you might have; the cancer club is getting bigger every day, except for the part that?s getting smaller), you know. If not, I can?t really tell you. And that?s kind of the point of this column.

One of the first things I learned this summer was the power of the unexpected. When Ann and I “got the news” on June 18, her first reaction was emotional. Mine was simultaneously philosophical (“Well, I guess I can use this experience in a few years after I finish rabbinical school”) and absurd (“I wonder if cancer patients get a discount at Denny?s?”).

That sort of floored me; I expected shock, fear, even hopelessness. So the second thing I learned was to pay attention ? for the first time in my 40 years ? to how I actually felt, and why.

Now, as I rejoin the world outside my apartment walls, I feel simultaneously deeper and more shallow. Deeper, because I understand more than I did three months ago. More shallow, because I better understand the limits of my own understanding.

Part of the depth is that I am mostly seeing the whole horrible affair as a gift rather than a curse, since I learned so much from it. And part of the shallowness is that after three months of talking about little else than “How are you feeling today?” I can barely bring myself to write another word about it.

I was terribly lucky ? to have such a loving community to help Ann and I through all this; to have access to competent medical care; and, to put it in firefighters? parlance, that everything was “light smoke showing” instead of “fully involved.” Not everyone is so lucky. Who knows ? I may not be next time, if there is a next time. But luck is only part of the equation.

Four days before my cancer diagnosis, I wrote a column about my two favorite modern Israeli sayings ? “zeh ma yesh (that?s what it is)” and “y?hyeh b?seder (it?ll all be okay).” Back then, I said these phrases were two intertwined halves of a healthy world view ? unsentimental pragmatism and unfounded optimism. Both sayings served me well during the past three months, and I expect them to do so in the future.

That could change at any moment. Meanwhile, I?m keeping my eyes and heart open to what this moment looks like. And I guess I?ll see what the next moment looks like when I get there.

frontal dispatch

I am now trying to write a 15-inch column about the Summer of Tzuris, at my newsdesk, on a new iMac, while hordes of people are giving me intermittent hugs and questions on my first day back at work. It’s 2:15 p.m. I have an appointment to meet the Sonoma fire chief at 4:30 p.m. to tour (and write about) the city’s new fire house. My column must be finished by 4:15, I think. I have rewritten the lead at least three times, and messed with the first 3 inches about six times. This is all I have, so far. And the clock, which waits for no one, is slowly and inexorably eating up my remaining deadline…

Life is good. ;-)

Two Towers, Two Tasks

FOR SOME REASON, THREE SIGNIFICANT dates fell out fairly close together recently: Sonoma’s first (?) 9/11 commemoration, Simchat Torah and the autumnal equinox. The first marks the end of American innocence; the second, the annual restarting of the synagogic Torah cycle; the third goes on regardless of human observation (unless, of course, Time only exists for those of us who count it). I was privileged to say something public about this in the pieces which follow; the first at Sonoma’s first 9/11 commemoration, the second at a service I led not long after:

D’var 9/11 – Open, Closed, Open (title borrowed from Yehuda Amichai)

I’m Neal Ross Attinson, a lay leader at Congregation Shir Shalom, and first I’d like to ask for a show of hands – On this day last year, how many people felt somewhat unable to get through the day, let alone the coming year?

On that Tuesday afternoon, I put an American flag on my car antenna as a sign of mourning. I’m removing it tomorrow, and I’d like to tell you why.

Jewish tradition recognizes the first year of mourning as an important stage of grief. During that year, we say a special memorial prayer every day. But at the close of the year, we stop – and only say it on each anniversary of the death thereafter.

This doesn’t mean we stop thinking about the person who has died – just as none of us here tonight will stop thinking about what happened a year ago. It means that we have integrated the person’s death, and our own grief, into our lives. We have not put the person behind us. What we have put behind us is the first year of grieving. In effect, we have closed one door and are ready to open another.

The central statement of Jewish faith, which the Torah commands us to say twice daily, is called the Sh’ma. The word “Sh’ma” means “listen,” and the first six words in Hebrew are “Sh’ma Yisroel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.” My favorite interpretation is, “Listen, you who wrestle with the Divine and with yourselves. G-d is simply G-d. G-d is One.”

I’m going to recite the first six words of the Shema, just as we recite it in synagogue – feel free to join me if you know it. As the echoes of this Shema die away, let’s take a few moments to listen – to our hearts, to the sound of our own breathing and that of those here with us – listen to the sound of the future through the open door before us all.

“Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad…”

Dvar Haazinu 5763

An old rabbi once said to a young scholar, “Sogt mir a posek – give me a verse of Torah – tell me what you know.” “But Rabbi,” the student said. “I only know a little Torah.” The rabbi replied, “That is all anyone knows of Torah.”

This week’s Torah portion finds Moses about to die, exhorting the Jews not to forget their heritage when they pass into the Land. “For this is not a trifling thing for you,” Moses says. “It is your very life; through it you shall long endure.”

It’s a fitting portion for this Shabbat – Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Shuvah means return, and on this Shabbat Shuvah I’d like to challenge us all to do just that.

Sunday, September 29 is Simchat Torah. We reach the end of the Torah and immediately begin again at the beginning, just as we’ve done for more than 2,000 years. We’ll then read a little bit each week until October 19, 2003, when we start all over again. We do this because the Torah is THE core document of Judaism – it’s not the only one, but it is why we have all the others.

Here’s the challenge: On September 29, why not come along for the ride?

If you accept this challenge, I personally and absolutely guarantee that three things will happen: You will be profoundly bored by some of what you read. You will be profoundly moved, maybe shocked, by some of it. But most importantly, you yourself will know what the Torah actually says. And using Torah as a door, you may travel a little further down the road to understanding Judaism – and maybe also yourself.

Some things to remember: Don’t get hung up on the “right” way to read the weekly portion. Many people like to read a little every day. Others read the whole portion a couple of times during the week, or on Saturday morning. You also don’t need to agree with or even believe what you’re reading – in fact, you probably won’t – you just have to believe it’s important.

Obviously, you also need a good translation of the text and a schedule of readings. If you don’t have the text, or – worse – if you only have the King James version (a notoriously bad translation), talk to me after the oneg; it’ll be easy to get one before the 29th. There’s a schedule of readings in each temple bulletin, but I will also post them weekly on our congregational email list – and give you any other help you ask for.

So there’s the challenge: Read one book, over the course of a year, a little at a time. What have you got to lose?


Quick post-Shabbat update (apols in advanmce for the typing, as I am too tired to go get my patch from the dining room:

1) Consulted a friend of mine who used to be in th e IDF re: Thiursday’s incident — while he apporeciated my resolve, he suggested fighting the battle (if such is to be in the future) on my ground, not the jerk’s: meaning that I should laugh it off and get the license number. He’s right — while my Support for the Team is huge, I don;t like playing games that others define for me — and though my rabbi told me the same thing, sometimes the who we hear from is more important than the what we hear.

2) Ann & I burned a 23 eLUl yahrzeit candle last night, placing it near our Shabbat candles. The wax from the Shabbat candles leaked into the yahrzeit candle, extinguishing it. I do not attribute causeality or cosmicity, but merely note the occurrence…

3) Be it also noted that our synagogue’s Selichot service tonight featurted a new HHD Torah mantle createdd by one of the three women who created the original mantle a few years ago — white silk (I think) with delicate gold flowers all over it. Absolutely fantastic.

Think Globally, Fight Locally

First, a message from a friend (posted in another forum) which I want to put “out there.” It’s timebound, but also timeless:

From: Micha Berger http://www.aishdas.org
Subject: 23 Elul

Tonight begins the 23rd of Elul.

What is 23 Elul, you may ask?

Last 23rd of Elul, at around the current time of day, I was dodging
peices of building in a thick cloud of smoke in some picture of downtown
Manhattan as portrayed by Dante.

23rd of Elul is the yahrzeit of every person who died last September 11th.

We'll be lighting a yahrzeit candle before my wife makes the
blessing on the Shabbos lights.

Those of us on this list who don't normally light Shabbos candles may
find lighting two candles tonight a fitting gesture. Just a thought.


In other news: My eye appointment is set for Sept. 5. Thank G-d I still have eyes, however imperfect, and a body with which to use them, and people to love with all three and more…

Oh, yeah ? funny story: While waiting for my ride home from school, I was hassled for the first time EVER about my yarmulke by some beefy 18-year-old jerk in the back of a Ford Explorer who thought he’d impress his pals by calling me “a f—–g Jew.” I advanced on the vehicle and asked him what his problem was; he opened the door menacingly and repeated his opinion of me. We growled at each other in primate language as his friends drove slowly out of the parking lot, with me advancing on him every time they pulled away. As he was incapable of uttering other phrases, I expressed the ultimate in domesticated primate contempt: I flashed him the Universal Digit and turned my back on him, walking away (while listening for the sound of pounding feet behind me). I am not a confrontational fellow, at all, at all, but had I somehow got it in my head that Jews Don’t Back Down From A Public Fight. Ann is proud that I stood my ground, and even advanced. My rabbi and I are engaged in a discussion about the Right Thing To Do. Her argument is that there’s a difference in fighting for self-defense and egging someone on — my argument is that, “Just because he doesn’t know that he’s made in the image of G-d doesn’t mean I have to put up with his crap.”

But wait…

SO my eye doctor tells me yesterday that he has NO IDEA what’s causing the misalignment, and is referring me to whiever of the two Big Name Medical Centers (either the University of California, San Francisco or Cal/Pacific) will be covered by my insurance, since he wants the neuro-oculists (neuro-optometrists?) inhabiting same to examine me before calling for a CAT scan or MRI.

“Should I be flattered?” I asked. He, not sharing the mordant sense of humor that is the genetic legacy of my father and his father and his and and so on back to Sinai and before (at least for the Attinson Clan — maybe not for Levites in general) just looked at me blankly.

I told him that (when I work) I am a newspaper reporter, and used to cold, brutal facts. “What exactly did you see in my eyes that makes you want to refer me to the finest medical minds within 100 miles?”

He looked at me. “It’s not strabismus, because if it were, it would have gotten better or at least stabilized instead of getting as bad as it’s gotten.” He also doubted that it’s something pressing on my eye or optical nerve, because it would be evidenced by something secondary (my capillaries would be all swollen up, say).

“Huh,” I said. “Can I at least get a corrective lens to tide me over?”

“There isn’t one strong enough to correct the misalignment,” he said.

“Huh,” I said. I was tempted to ask him for a large-caliber handgun and a big pile of ammunition, and some canned food, but declined on account of the humor thing.

So here I sit, typing one-eyed into the void, waiting for a phone call to guide me to the next stop on the way. Ann is frantic. I am strangely philosophical. I guess I’ll just get through it.

Or Hapanim

Tomorrow, Ann and I go off to the Reform movement’s Santa Cruz Kallah, for a few days of study, prayer, eating, schmoozing and sleeping. She’s driving; I’m walking with a cane. (She’s already (and quite rightly) accused me of having “caneitude,” a reference to my using the cane for gesturing, emphasis, and general prop-ness as much as (if not more so) than as a walking aid. Bwahahaha.)

I feel… well, apart from the four-inch stitch in my extreme lower right abdomen, the pain and stiffness of the surgery, and the grogginess of the (still-necessary) painkillers, I FEEL *G*O*O*D*!*!*! Wow. I mean REALLY good, psychically, physically, emotionally, etc. I’ll post something I just sent to both of our tight-knit social circles (our synagogue and our Renfaire tribe) which describes that in a general way, but the thoughts and feelings are flooding me by turns: relief, awe, gratitude, fatigue, triumph, grim determination, overwhelming appreciation of my family and friends, puzzlement, frustration at the inhibitory effect of the narcotics on my ability to express myself (self-expression is a cornerstone of my sense of identity, so this is perhaps the hardest of the side-effects of “it”), a sense that “This is/was a Big Thing,” and above it all a strong sense of surreality.

Surreality as expressed in the following post. Right now Ann and I are going to have a vanilla Tofutti Cutie (dairyless ice-cream sandwiches) and go to bed. Oh, and I expect to be back at work, G-d willing, on August 2.

And then, aside from the scar, It Will All Be A Memory… pshyeah. Ri-i-i-i-i-i-i-ight.

Anyway, here’s what I said to everyone:

Date: Mon, 15 Jul 2002 08:55:45 -0700 (PDT)

Shalom chaverim,

Less than a month after I was diagnosed with cancer, Ann & I are now left
with a surreal sense of, "What just happened here?"

It feels like something ugly, huge, hairy and sticky just brushed through
the house with a loud howl of trembling and medicine, leaving barely a
memory (and a few stitches) in its wake.

That's not entirely true, of course. What it chiefly left me with is an
overwhelming sense of gratitude for my life and for the people with whom I
am blessed enough to share it -- for all of your prayers, and concern, and
visits, and dinner, and support, and calls, and advice, and just for being
there. With an overwhelming force of love like that, the awful parts didn't
stand a chance -- not that they weren't still awful, but they were certainly
bearable, since I knew that I wasn't alone.

You all helped me see that, and from the beginning, when I was still
assimilating the fact that I /had/ cancer. I don't know what Ann & I would
have done without you all. "Thank you" doesn't exactly cut it -- I sort of
fantasize lining up everyone so that I can soundly hug you all one by one --
but it's the best I can do over the email.

I love you all. Thank you. Thank you.