Monday, April 23, 2012

Farewell, Farewell Tour

A few days away from our first of 82 weekly meetings in the Kaiser program. I have been very enthusiastic about starting this program even as I approach it with some fear and trembling. The irony lies in my very conscious yet dubious “farewell tour” of my favorite foods. It is unfortunate that I have had as long as I have had to anticipate the start of the program. I have been sowing wild oats for weeks since I committed to do the program. As a result I have truly been over the top trying to assure myself that I won’t have any regrets for not having tasted something that for the next four to six months, if not forever, will be entirely verboten. (The doc assured me that I would not have to give up eating tacos for life, that I just might have to cut down on the quantity.) I have been eating like there is literally no tomorrow.

Another irony lies in the yet unspoken admission that engaging in these food fests is not entirely all that satisfying (notable exception: linguine puttanesca at Amici’s last week, but even that would have been even more satisfying had I eaten less of it). There seems to be a disconnect between the mental state that leads to this...hmmmm... I almost said “food worship”—I’ll have to come back to that, let’s just say the anticipationand the physical act of eating, tasting, digesting the stuff. Without having attended a single Kaiser lecture I already feel a small distance opening between the desire and the reality. Understanding and expanding that gap should be a good thing.

During the intake examination the doc asked a battery of questions, including, “Do you worship food.” I had to hesitate on that one. “An odd question,” I thought. “I’m Jewish. I don’t worship food. Do I?” I said, “No,” and we moved on. Now I’m forced to ask myself if I answered that honestly. Moreover, I am forced to ask if food hasn’t become some sort of idolatry. If I admit that there is at least an emotional altar upon which I have placed tacos and slices of New York pizza, hot pastrami sandwiches on rye, fried chicken, malted milk shakes, potato chips, French fries, Ben & Jerry’s, Häagen-Dazs, See’s Candy...okay you get the idea. If, for a minute, I accept the ascendancy these have reached, that there is a higher power in my life and it’s questionable whether it is God or Food—then I may indeed have an idolatry as much as a diet problem.

When my machatonim (Yiddish for the parents of, in this case, my son-in-law) visited for Passover, they gave us a beautiful book entitled Mitzvah Stories—Seeds for Inspiration and Learning. As the title suggests, the theme of the stories is the performance of mitzvot (pl)—usually translated from the Hebrew as “commandments” or more freely as “good deeds.” I like that the book casts mitzvot in a few different lights. One is “obligations” which sounds a little heavy, but Richard Joel, President of Yeshiva University says in the foreword “Once we realize that that the divine obligations of the Torah enrich our very being, we then have the potential to succeed.” Goldie Milgram, the editor, adds in the introduction “Each mitzvah constitutes a category of Jewish spiritual practice that provides us ways of texturing our lives with meaningful actions.” These statements lingered as backdrop when I read more of the book’s introductory material including a list of Forty-Five Mitzvah-Centered Practices. The one that jumped off the page was, “Sh’mirat ha-guf—Live Healthy (literally, take care of the body)!”

Yesterday I attended a Talmud study session with the world-renowned scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. He chose—perhaps for me alone—the topic of demons! Regardless of the view some hold that these entities are pure superstition, he acknowledged that the presence of demons proliferate in our lives. There is evil. There are many attractions that deplete rather than enrich our existence. Whether we see these distractions and disturbances as mystical entities or psychological defects or whatever ever construct we use, we are better off acknowledging their existence than denying them. I am writing this as a reminder to myself to recognize my demons, to learn from the repetitive mistakes I have made in pursuing them, and that the outcome will not change as long as they have the upper hand. (This is a little reminiscent of Charlie Brown thinking that Lucy won’t yank the football away as he runs to kick it, no?)

Each year at Rosh Hashanah we speak of making teshuva, turning aside from past actions that have proved to be harmful to ourselves, to others, to the world. Even in the secular world, we approach each January with fresh resolutions that are often forgotten by February. What does it take to truly make the turn? Last year’s dashed hopes sit on my shoulder amplifying the voices of the demons. Why do their arguments seems so much more cogent than the quiet whispers of past successes? Screw ‘em! I’m moving ahead, knowing the sages said that just as one misdeed leads to another, so does one mitzvah lead to another. The month-long food orgy has actually gotten boring! It has highlighted the folly of praying at the food altar. I know the choir exalting food has been singing in my soul for a lifetime. It is time to sing a new song!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


God bless my dreams. Just woke up from another one that I won’t describe (whew!!!) other than to say it involved standing up for what I believe, and backing down when the reality shifted, searching for my pants, and my broken glasses, demurring an opportunity to join the younger generation in a fun outing, stopping to put my lights on while riding a bicycle in the dark against the traffic, and taking that ride past an antiquated “Sidney’s Matzah Factory” where by chance I ran into a former colleague by the name of Whitehair and half exclaimed and half inquired, “You’re in Providence!?”  A lot of grist for the dream interpretation mill there, but most important is, as always—what were my first conscious thoughts after such a surreal escapade?

The message is simple, even if you wouldn’t come up with this from these dream fragments yourself. This is my year of downsizing in the physical plane and, God willing growing in the spiritual and emotional planes. (I’ll be satisfied not to lose any ground on the intellectual plane.)

It hit me that “less is more”—a common phrase that my great teacher in architecture school, the late icon of American Post-Modernism, Charles W. Moore dismissed in both word and deed. He lived a personal and professional life dedicated not just to “less is a bore,” but comically to “Moore is not less!” Moore indeed was more. He packed so much into his time and space frame—abundant artifacts in his abundant houses abundantly designed as a stage for his abundant personality that was embodied by his abundant torso. Charlie was larger than life in so many ways that it eventually led him out of life at an early age.

The torah says, “I have set before you life and death. Choose life that you may live.” My quest, this journey upon which I am embarking, is to choose life by downsizing my body, yet I suspect I am also on a path to downsize my entire worldly physical experience in favor of other rewards—rewards of a more spiritual nature. This is a time in my life where as part of my spiritual eldering I must begin to understand the absolute truth of my mortality. That includes the necessary eventual diminishment of many of the physical attributes I have taken for granted most of my life. I don’t mean to hurry that process at all. On the contrary, recognition of the consequences of life itself and certainly all of the decisions and actions I take within each day of this life, enables me to treasure each day and to weigh each decision all the more. Recognition of the consequences of life allows me to slow down the pace, which for 64 years has militated against such consciousness.

Only in recent months has the notion of retirement even crossed my mind. When the corporation I work for put my continued employment into question my response was to fight to reinvent myself in the company and save my job. One outcome of this ordeal was a clearer awareness that someday this job will indeed end. This inspired such questions as, “What will my life be after that and when?” Powerful questions deserve powerful answers. From questions like these flow a stream of related issues touching on my life with my wife, our physical surroundings, our financial planning, and issues after which government agencies are named, such as health, education and welfare.

No doubt my dream was at least in part influenced by the passing this week of another great teacher of mine—an architect of lesser note, but a far greater presence in my life than Charlie Moore. John M. Kahl, Sr. was without question my greatest manager, mentor, coach, supporter, collaborator, and above all friend that I have or likely will have in the workplace. In too many ways to recount here I owe my professional life to him. We would laugh when he would tell me about his imaginary classmate Les Izmore. The loss of a friend like John awakens the elusive awareness of the fact of one’s mortality.

Most of us living on the physical plane become enraptured by the physical trappings of this world—the many sensory pleasures that come from surrounding ourselves with property and possessions, delighting all our senses with food, sex, travel, entertainment—a constant bombardment of physical delight. How well can we adjust to downsizing any or all of that? Can we do it on our own timetable or are we beholden to external circumstances as one by one earthly delights diminish or disappear?

Coincidentally—or not—shortly after I begin this eighteen-month program designed to downsize my unhealthy appetite for food I will begin an eighteen-month program designed to enhance my spiritual growth called Kol Zimra with Rabbi Shefa Gold. I see a great possibility that these complementary activities will feed one another in a very healthy, spiritual, and life sustaining way. Less is more, and it opens a door. I pray that less stuff and less stuffing open me to infinite possibilities on planes where physical attributes and material possessions become of less and less importance.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

I Had a Dream

Would you like to hear my dream? Of course not, unless, perhaps it is the Martin Luther King, Junior kind. If it’s comprised of the hallucinational images I awoke with in the middle of the night, of course you do NOT want to hear my dream. A couple of weeks ago I updated my Facebook status with this comment:
Passover song parodies are like certain bodily aromas. It's hard to take someone else's, but your own seems fine. I didn't like a version of Take Me Out to the Ballgame I saw, so I wrote my own. Seems fine to me. 
And then, of course I offered the words to my song parody for all to groan at, like someone else's flatus.

It seems there are a lot of words one can insert in place of “Passover song parodies” in the snippet above. “Dreams” is one. “Diet plans” may be another. As I move inexorably closer to the beginning of my next major life improvement project I become increasingly nervous that I will find myself talking incessantly about its demands and ramifications as friends and family desperately edge backwards out of the room. With each step they take toward the exit I am afraid that I will follow pontificating that, “It isn’t a diet actually, it’s a life style change. Here, let me tell you more!”

All of that is understandable, perhaps even admirable. For one thing, as I learned in one famous weekend transformational seminar that, like dreams and diet plans, the mere mention of sends people scurrying like pigeons running from a four-year old, it is important to talk about your goals with others. They called it “enrolling” others in one’s vision. I call it trying to convince oneself by trying to convince others. The more people one tells about one’s intentions, the more pressure one puts on oneself to live up to those intentions. No doubt there is truth to that, only why should other people have to suffer?

Setting aside the power of “enrolling” for a moment, there is also the issue of how one avoids, in the course of polite conversation, mentioning what is likely to be the most all consuming topic in one’s life at the moment. Am I thinking that I will embark on a “life style changing” campaign that requires my abstaining from eating almost all manner of food for six months and somehow not mention it to the people with whom I would normally enjoy both food and their company (which often focuses on the topic of food)? The subject has to come up.

My conclusion is that I will feed my soul, even as I “deprive” my body, by blogging a bit about this journey from obesity to fitness. If I find myself in a situation where I feel compelled to speak about the Medical Weight Management Program at Kaiser Permanente to someone not affiliated with it or, bless her, to my longsuffering and supportive wife, I can merely say, “It’s a long story. If you are really interested read my blog.” That way I get to blather endlessly about how “I really don’t have any food cravings” and no one has to sneak out of the room. They can simply choose to read it or more likely not.

So, would you like to hear my dream? There was this huge cheesy New York pizza....