Bob Schwartz

Category: Family

Metta Mama

Metta Mama

As a mother watches over her child, willing to risk her own life to protect her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings, suffusing the whole world with unobstructed loving-kindness.

May all beings be happy.
May they live in safety and joy.

Metta Sutta

The miracles never end.
The conception, the birth, the growth.
Yet none of it happens
All of it flows
From you the source, the spring.
Ask:
How is it possible
Being merely human
Perfect and flawed
To give so much
For the other
To the other
Happiness, safety and joy?
Answer:
It is no other
Than yourself.
This child
No other than yourself.

Thanks to the wondrous mother I had and the wondrous mother of our child who graces our lives.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Joe Biden and the Kennedys: Profiles in Service and Tragedy

Joe Biden

Thinking about Joe Biden’s decision on whether to run for the Democratic presidential nomination, the Kennedys come to mind. All the brothers.

Like the Kennedys, Biden is Irish-American, with a fanatical sense of public service and family. Like the Kennedys, he is a pragmatic liberal, maybe a bit to the left of that dynasty, but deeply aware of the obligation of those who have much to those who have much less.

(Speaking of the haves, unlike the Kennedys, Biden may be the least wealthy politician ever to emerge from decades of high-profile public service.)

Most of all, like the each of the Kennedy brothers, he has had to struggle with multiple tragedies, each one a reason to choose a different path, each one instead a reason to keep going—because of rather than in spite of.

Not a single person, no matter the party, no matter who they support, would begrudge Biden a decision not to run this time. But—unlike the position taken by those who say running might tarnish his legacy—he would crown his career by demonstrating the idea that what does not kill us can make us stronger, and can make us give more, even when so much has been taken.

Aunt Rose

Rose

My Aunt Rose has died.

Aunts and uncles are a unique category. In most cases, but not all, they are not quite as close as parents, but in other ways more fun, interesting, exciting, understanding, and comforting.

My uncle Herbie died too soon, many years ago. That was long before blogs or any of my family chronicles. Maybe this will prompt me to finally get around to his stories, which are worthy of a novel, but for now, this is Rose’s moment.

My family was large above my parents’ generation. They grew up with a big circle of aunts and uncles and seemingly dozens of cousins. But my parents themselves had only one sibling apiece, and on top of that, my father was estranged from his brother. So I really had only one aunt and uncle. But given how special they were, that was enough.

Special, and beautiful. That would be my aunt. Herbie was beautiful inside, my Mom’s deservedly adored baby brother, but I’m not sure how he would have done in a beauty contest. Rose was maybe the first stunningly gorgeous woman I had ever been close to (not that my Mom was shabby, of course). Her parents were Mexican, gracious and sweet, and her mother was just as striking. That heritage would be the source of its own tsuris (Yiddish for “trouble”), as my grandparents refused to accept her into the family for years—even though the couple lived blocks away.

There is no paradise on earth. A nephew has a different and less tense or intense experience of an aunt than her children do, just a grandparents look more ideal to grandchildren than to the parents in the middle. When I grew up, Rose looked and acted like an angel to me. An angel she was, and still is.

Thanksgiving and Hanukkah in America: A History

Hanukkah in America
Hanukkah is getting lots more attention this year than it usually does, because it starts on Thanksgiving, rather than on or about Christmas.

This is nearly unprecedented. Of course there’s lots of controversy about just how rare it is, partly because Thanksgiving has officially moved from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday, partly because the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, partly because of some esoterica of interest to extreme calendar freaks. Some say it won’t happen again for 70,000 years, others say it will never, ever happen again. If you happen to be around when it does, if it does, please e-mail, post, tweet, or whatever sort of advanced messaging will be used then to communicate with the curious but departed.

Thanksgivingukkah, or whatever other ridiculous and ear-hurting names people are coming up with, is second only to Black Friday as a cultural meme this week. We will be seeing lots of turkeys with Hanukkah candles stuck in them—actual ones, not just Photoshopped ones, at actual Thanksgiving tables, with plenty of videos to prove it. Might even see some turkey selfies. On the food front, we will have combined cuisines, where things not usually seen on the Thanksgiving table make an appearance, such as latkes and sour cream. (Note: I am promoting latke stuffing as the best of all possible hybrids.)

There’s a lot to talk about when Hanukkah and Christmas collide and coincide, theologically, historically and socially. Both involve charismatic Jewish religious leaders taking on tyranny—though one battles on the military and political front, while the other wields an entirely different set of weapons. As a central theme, both at some point take on the profaning of the Temple, in one case made unholy by soldiers, in the other made unholy by turning sacred space into a commercial enterprise. Both involve miracles and miraculous lights challenging the darkness. Not to mention that at the time of Jesus, Jews knew and marked the events of the Maccabee revolution, which had taken place less than two hundred years earlier.

Whether you are Jewish, or just newly fascinated by Hanukkah because it is for once not getting lost in the Christmas mishegas (“craziness” in Yiddish), have I got a book for you. Hanukkah in America: A History by Dianne Ashton is more than just a review of how American Jews regarded and celebrated this once-minor holiday. It is the definitive and delightful book about how Hanukkah evolved to become a laboratory for what it means to be a Jew in America, and for that matter what it means to be Americans of any kind.

Here’s something Ashton writes about Thanksgiving and the “deluxe Hanukkah turkey dinner”:

Many Jews combined food products available in America with recipes they deemed appropriate for Hanukkah meals. Even with a simple meal at home, immigrants could imagine a different Hanukkah past than the one in Eastern Europe. They could envision a personal bond with Judah Maccabee by selecting Carmel wine, which claimed to be “what the Maccabees drank.” Local food shops such as Goldman’s Tea and Coffee Store held special sales in honor of Sabbath Hanukkah. Jewish restaurateurs sometimes targeted immigrants’ desires for American foods at special occasions. Perhaps no food is so identified with America as the turkey, an animal native to North America and the featured dish of the Thanksgiving dinners that take place across the country only a few weeks before Hanukkah. When Gorfein’s, a kosher restaurant, advertised a deluxe Hanukkah turkey dinner in the Forverts, it apologized in print the next day to “hundreds [who had to be] turned away” because the restaurant “had no space or food left for them.” Gorfein’s offered the same dinner a second night.

My usual Hanukkah post, sometime around Christmas, ends with a mention of a wonderful Comedy Central special, A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All. Our comic saviors Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert perform the song Can I Interest You In Hanukkah? with Stewart making the case for the Jewish holiday:

Jon: Can I interest you in Hanukkah? Maybe something in a Festival of Lights. It’s a sensible alternative to Christmas. And it lasts for seven – for you – eight nights.
Stephen: Hanukkah huh? I’ve never really thought about it.
Jon: Well, you could do worse.
Stephen: Is it merry?
Jon: It’s kind of merry.
Stephen: Is it cheery?
Jon: It’s got some cheer.
Stephen: Is it jolly?
Jon: Look, I wouldn’t know from jolly. But it’s not my least unfavorite time of year.
Stephen: When’s it start?
Jon: The 25th.
Stephen: Of December?
Jon: Kislev.
Stephen: Which is when exactly?
Jon: I will check
Stephen: Are there presents?
Jon: Yes, indeed eight days of presents. Which means one nice one, then a week of dreck.
Stephen: Does Hanukkah commemorate events profound and holy? A king who came to save the world?
Jon: No, oil that burned quite slowly.
Stephen: Well, it sounds fantastic!
Jon: There’s more. We have latkes.
Stephen: What are they?
Jon: Potato pancakes. We have dreidels.
Stephen: What are they?
Jon: Wooden tops. We have candles.
Stephen: What are they?
Jon: THEY ARE CANDLES! And when we light them, oh the fun it never stops. What do you say, Stephen, do you want to give Hanukkah a try?
Stephen: I’m trying see me as a Jew. I’m trying even harder. But I believe in Jesus Christ
So it’s a real non-starter.
Jon: I can’t interest you in Hanukkah? Just a little bit?
Stephen: No thanks I’ll pass. I’ll keep Jesus, you keep your potato pancakes. But I hope that you enjoy ‘em on behalf of all of the goyim.
Jon: Be sure to tell the Pontiff, my people say “good yontif”.
Stephen: That’s exactly what I’ll do.
Both: Happy holidays, you
Jon: too!
Stephen: Jew!
Jon: Too?

That’s it for this holiday mashup. Read the book; it’s great. Celebrate religious freedom by eating too much food. Spin the turkey. Light the candles. But whatever you do, don’t smoke the turkey, because it is impossible to keep that thing lit.

Happy holidays. Be safe.

The Year Begins with Baseball

Mom Marlins
The New Year finally begins. It is Opening Day for Major League Baseball.

Non-baseball people are turning away with a lack of interest or understanding. Even non-sports people know that football long ago took over as America’s pastime. The Super Bowl v. the World Series? Who are you kidding? When’s the last time the Rolling Stones performed at a World Series halftime. (Note: There is no halftime in baseball. Just a brief break known as the seventh inning stretch, where we sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame, not a Stones song.)

If baseball has somehow been eclipsed, it may be symptomatic. Whatever it is that has made football more popular than baseball might not be such a good thing. There are tomes by eminent scholars written about this. The time element alone is telling. Those leaning towards short attention spans and busy lives like football because something is always happening and it is time-constrained by a clock. For non-baseball fans, there are long stretches where nothing seems to be going on in a baseball game, except most of the players just standing around. Games can theoretically go on forever, and sometimes they seem to, exceeding five hours. Once again the chorus asks: Who are you kidding?

George Carlin, one of the sharptest and funniest observers of American life, focused on the differences between baseball and football. You can read the complete text and listen to a recording. Here’s an excerpt:

Baseball and football are the two most popular spectator sports in this country. And as such, it seems they ought to be able to tell us something about ourselves and our values.

I enjoy comparing baseball and football:

Baseball is a nineteenth-century pastoral game.
Football is a twentieth-century technological struggle….

Baseball begins in the spring, the season of new life.
Football begins in the fall, when everything’s dying.

In football you wear a helmet.
In baseball you wear a cap….

In football you receive a penalty.
In baseball you make an error.

In football the specialist comes in to kick.
In baseball the specialist comes in to relieve somebody.

Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting and unnecessary roughness.
Baseball has the sacrifice….

And finally, the objectives of the two games are completely different:

In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line.

In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! I hope I’ll be safe at home!

There are dozens of books containing art, poetry and writing about baseball. The other sports may have some, but not of the quantity or the caliber of these. As pointed out before, and it will be pointed out again, for a brief moment in the late 1980s, cut tragically short by illness, A. Bartlett Giamatti was the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. Bart Giamatti was the President of Yale University, a professor of literature, and a writer of note. When and only when the NFL, NBA, NHL, or any other sports league decides to appoint a person of equal credentials as their commissioner, then and only then will it be worth having a conversation about the big picture relative merits.

Bart Giamatti also wrote the quintessential essay about baseball. The Green Fields of the Mind is written not about Opening Day, but about the last day of the season for his beloved Boston Red Sox in 1977. He didn’t live to see that one of baseball’s most hapless teams would go on to become a championship powerhouse years later.

The essay is a poetic take not only on the refrain of baseball fans everywhere—“wait until next year”—but on the way that refrain works in our lives. It reflects the progress from the hopes of spring to the dimming of prospects in the fall, but only in the meantime. There is no justice in an excerpt of it, but here is one anyway:

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. Today, October 2, a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped, and summer was gone.…

That is why it breaks my heart, that game–not because in New York they could win because Boston lost; in that, there is a rough justice, and a reminder to the Yankees of how slight and fragile are the circumstances that exalt one group of human beings over another. It breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion; and because, after it had fostered again that most hungered-for illusion, the game was meant to stop, and betray precisely what it promised.

Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.

Finally, a rare personal note. Many, many families have memories tied up with sports. I am no exception. Those memories aren’t important because the game is, just as the game isn’t important because of the memories. They are just tied up in a package that you open on occasions. Opening Day is one of them. Above is a photo of my Mom, a few years before she passed away. She is watching a Marlins game. As Bart Giamatti wrote, “there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts.”

That’s another reason we love baseball and are happy it is Opening Day again.

Mitt Romney Doesn’t Really Want To Be President


Mitt Romney doesn’t want to be President. This has been apparent for a while, but it seemed so unlikely—so strange for a person who is actually a nominee—that it defied saying. But it is the clearest explanation of everything that is happening.

Why would Romney run if he doesn’t want the office? The clichéd but useful explanation goes to a father-son dynamic.

In at least one objective respect, Mitt has spectacularly surpassed George Romney. Mitt Romney is a very, very rich man, wealthier than his father ever was.

As a businessman, it is a little more complicated. George Romney was, as the saying used to go, a captain of industry. He worked his way up to become head of one of the largest automakers, back when that mattered much more than it does now. Even if American Motors wasn’t one of the Big Three, it was a notable, forward-looking player in the field.

Mitt Romney’s success is different. Even treating the financial world as a discrete industry, which it of course is, the term “captain of industry” doesn’t seem to apply to Mitt. In the annals of financial history, no one will be talking about the creativity of Bain Capital the way business historians still do about the ahead-of-its-time thinking that marked American Motors—the company that believed the oversized car era was over, and that consumers would be buying compact and efficient automobiles. Eventually they would.

Politics is where the distinction is sharpest. George Romney was elected Republican Governor of Michigan three times—a state that was then decidedly Democratic. He had substantial political appeal and support, but his dream of being President was scuttled in part by the infamous “brainwashing” incident. He had visited Vietnam, and was told by the generals how well the war was going—in spite of evidence to the contrary. When he spoke about his opposition to the war, he said he had been “brainwashed” by the generals. George Romney’s political career never recovered.

As a politician, Mitt Romney has run for office just twice, and won only once. He was defeated for U.S. Senate from Massachusetts in 1994, and then was elected Governor in 2002. He chose not to run for re-election in 2006. Indications were that he would have a difficult race, and he instead began his run for the Presidency the day before he left office.

This father-son analysis—that Mitt Romney is trying, at all costs and for whatever reasons, to do what his father never could—may sound too easy. But the story of fathers and sons is just about the oldest story ever told. The patriarchal sagas of the Old Testament begin there, and great stories derive their greatness from the fact that some things never change.

Mitt Romney is following a program that he may not see or understand but that he has little or no choice about. It is a program, this running for President, that normally requires some combination of skill and desire. A surplus of one can balance out a deficit in the other. But trying to run without either—which we have never seen in a Presidential race—is bound to produce some anomalous results.

In the case of Mitt Romney, we can set aside the issue of how much political skill he has, though many have their doubts. The real question is how much desire he has. The answer, strangely, is little or none.

The outcome of the election is far from written. In case Mitt Romney loses, there is reason to believe that he will suffer some nagging psychic pain. But given the possibility that it is not something he really wants. there is also reason to believe he will go back to an extraordinarily comfortable life, and secretly be relieved.