Saturday, December 6, 2008

Final Thoughts


The following are remarks about the Israel Ride that I delivered to Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City CA at Shabbat morning services.

==============================================

Last month I was among 105 cyclists who rode from Jerusalem to Ashqelon down through the Negev to Eilat, approximately 300 miles to raise money for two very worthy organizations—the Arava Institute and Hazon. A year and a half ago I was moved by Greg Sterling’s account of his Israel Ride experience, but I pretty much put the idea on the shelf. When I started looking for an audacious goal to help me focus on getting more exercise this year, Debbie suggested resurrecting the idea of going on the Israel Ride. The ride was indeed the perfect motivator. I lost some weight, I gained some muscle, and clearly I built up some stamina.

Those were the tangible goals I set out to accomplish. The unexpected and intangible consequences, however, were at least as great if not greater. This morning I will share those with you—first some of what I have come to appreciate about Arava and Hazon. Then I’ll deal with some of the emotional and spiritual aspects of the journey.

Arava and Hazon are amazing—not only in what they each do on their own, but even more remarkably in how they seamlessly collaborate on creating these extraordinary events. Hazon has the primary responsibility for the ride. Their mission is to produce outdoor events to raise consciousness and money to support the environment. They sponsor a similar annual ride in New York and they sponsor long hikes across Israel as well. In a few weeks, in support of another of their goals, they will host a conference at Asilomar on contemporary issues of food which Debbie and I plan to attend. Their work brings people together to create an instant community where they accomplish things they could only have dreamed of accomplishing independently.

Arava’s mission is a cross cultural study of environmental issues They support the ride with many volunteer hours, but primarily they are the beneficiaries of the ride. The money we raise goes to providing scholarships for deserving students at the Institute. And what students they are! Some of you may have heard the two Arava alumni who spoke from this bema in September, and some of you may have the pleasure of meeting more alumni and students when you visit their home at Kibbutz Ketura later this month.

I was continually impressed by their dedication to the goals of Arava—improving the environment and advancing the cause of peace in the Middle East. It is impossible to say whether the dialogue of Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian students supports the environmental studies, or whether the environmental studies support the dialogue of Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian students. The fact is they have created a worthy model to be admired and hopefully imitated by other institutions if not ultimately their governments. The alumni continue their dialogue long after their studies are ended. Some have already moved into roles in their respective governments and many aspire to lead their countries in peaceful dialogues with one another. They point out that while geopolitical conversations typically run into borders, the environment—the waters, the earth, and the air—do not stop at military checkpoints. Those at Arava come to understand that the solutions they seek for environmental challenges can only be achieved through cooperation with their neighbors.

These are courageous people. All of the students have had to take a stand, often in the face of opposition from their family and friends, in order to study with people considered to be the enemy. Imagine what it takes for a Jordanian to go and study in Israel. It is not always easy, even among the students, who still have serious disagreements at times. Nonetheless, they are able to bridge their differences and come together. Often they bring their new friends home, much to the discomfort of their families—teaching their families to respect and to love their neighbors as never before.

Since they often have little or no support from their own communities many of these students are able to continue their studies at Arava only by virtue of the funds we provide. It was more than a pleasure getting to know them. It was an honor to be among a group of students, faculty, staff and fellow cyclists that had labored so greatly in support of such high ideals.

I’ve told you about the sponsor and the beneficiaries of the Israel Ride. How about the cycling itself? While riding a bike across the Negev has been done before, it’s not such a common occurrence. Like many accomplishments, this one looks very different in retrospect than it did beforehand.

When I started this quest last Spring it seemed enormous. I had never ridden more than 10 or 12 miles on a bicycle so the very thought of going 300 miles seemed almost impossible. Moreover, the idea of raising a minimum of $3,600 seemed formidable as well. In addition to these lofty goals I also had very high expectations about what the significance of the ride would be. It held great promise of providing some sort of life altering experience.

Now I look at all these superlatives with a very different perspective. For one thing, while I did go the full distance it wasn’t this giant leap for mankind, but merely an accumulation of small steps, or I should say small rotations. It was reminiscent of a lesson my father desperately tried to teach me as a youngster. Take the big task and break it up into small doable pieces. That is what I did to prepare for and accomplish this ride. For eight months I took bike rides—each one a little longer than the previous one until 12 miles eventually grew to become 60 miles, until small hills gave way to big climbs. In Israel, as challenging as some of the distances and ascents may have been, all I did was apply the lessons of my training by turning the pedals persistently until the goal was reached. When it was all over, it really didn’t seem like such an awesome feat after all.

Raising money was very much the same. Early and often I sent email to many people in my address book. One by one the donations came in—many of them from this congregation, thank you very much—and ultimately, with over $8000 raised—I became one of the top fund raisers on the ride.

As for the great cosmic epiphany I expected—there wasn’t so much one huge aha moment, but many small pin pricks of consciousness and delight. As I rode across the sometimes barren and often majestic landscape there would be moments in which I felt heightened, almost surreal awareness—how could this be real, this event that I had imagined and planned for so long?

From the tedium of watching an endless succession of highway reflectors move beneath me, to the breathtaking 45-mph descents on an open road with vast sweeping vistas—these moments were real. There were quiet moments too, when the group had spread out, when I had the entire road to myself as far as I could see. As alone as I was, with little to be heard other than the sound of my own bicycle rolling across the pavement, I would still feel secure in knowing that I was part of an amazing supportive, loving community. To be that alone and feel that connected was very sweet. These moments were real.

I have been writing a blog to capture my thoughts and recollections of this endeavor since the day I purchased my new road bike. In looking over my writings from these past months I recognize many lessons learned and questions pondered. Here is just a sampling—

  • Overcoming my darkest thoughts of my chances of success
  • Learning what to do for my physical well-being and taking care of myself
  • Learning what to do to support my emotional wellbeing
  • Learning that sometimes the struggle of going uphill actually provides satisfaction and comfort that outweighs the pain.
  • Conversely, learning that the downhill experience may include speed, danger, and fear that outweighs the sense of ease and release.
  • Learning to live with all of these contradictions at once.
  • Learning that sometimes, what I thought would be around the next bend was nothing like what I found.
  • Appreciating the very different nature of riding alone versus with one other or with a small group or with a very large group—each with its distinct benefits and liabilities.
  • Taking some early, relatively small spills and learning from them how to be vigilant and avoid larger, more dangerous situations down the road.
  • Learning to be in this moment and not let my mind place me in danger by taking me somewhere other than where I am.
  • Learning how important it is to let go of old paradigms and habits in order to move to new ones.
  • Learning that sometimes speed is the thing, and sometime taking one’s time to savor is what’s important.
  • Experiencing, during the Israel Ride itself, the greatest appreciation I have ever had in my life for the notion of Shabbat rest.

With all those lessons and more, one might feel complete, sated from the experience. But even with all of that I still have lingering questions.

Some of these came up in a conversation I had with my brother, Jeff, this week. Jeff is a rabbi in Huntsville, Alabama. He was in my heart and prayers during the ride because he has brain cancer. I mention this conversation because I found it amazing that some of the spiritual issues and questions I am dealing with after my accomplishment are very similar to ones he is dealing with obviously in a deeper, more profound way, as he confronts his mortality. Questions such as:

  • Did this feat (or you can read, did this life) mean anything?
  • What difference did it make in the world? Did I add value?
  • Did I get what I expected?
  • How much did I give? Was I, am I, willing to receive?
  • Do I acknowledge what I have accomplished as well as what I have not?
  • And the question I started pondering even before the ride, “What comes next?”

A major event may provoke such questions, but truly these are questions we might ask ourselves at any time. Jeff and I talked about how our deeds provide context and meaning for our lives. We talked about how Judaism is all about creating opportunities to add meaning, and that we can experience this every day when we rise and marvel at the very fact that God has again breathed life back into our soul.

All of this from a bike ride!

My eight month trek resulted in modest improvements to my body. It gave me a taste of a part of Israel that I had not seen before, and it contributed to a small group of people, helping them to make an incremental impact on the environment and peace in the region. Maybe none of this is as huge as it might have seemed to me months ago, but the whole experience is truly greater than the sum of its parts. My journey, at once overwhelming and at the same time very simple, supported by my friends here and elsewhere, has been one that I will always treasure, and for which I will always be grateful.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Communitas


So that’s the way the ride ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.

Against my better judgment I acceded to the wishes of some fellow riders and participated in a post-ride trip to Petra. Petra itself was fantastic—geologically and architecturally there is probably little to compare to the narrow canyons and ancient monumental carvings. Was it worth the ten-hour ordeal of getting there and back for a two-hour glimpse of one of the Seven Wonders of the World (assuming what one tourist said is true)?

Maybe.

For this I gave up an unhurried day on the beach at Eilat, and a much anticipated return engagement at one of the finest restaurant meals I have ever eaten—Margaret Tayar’s in Jaffa. Far from unhurried, it was a nail biter at reentry to Israel. Our tour coordinator finally pushed to the front of the passport control line those of us on the 8:55 flight from Eilat to Tel Aviv. We would rush into cabs rather than wait for the whole group to gain entry and take the bus to the hotel together. The cabs would allow us to pick up our bags and scurry to the airport with a little time to spare. The by-product of this frenzied strategy was a few hasty high fives instead of more leisurely farewells with the others.

We grabbed the cabs.
Dashed to the hotel.
Dashed to the airport.
Crawled through security—interrogated for a variety of suspicions, most notably for not having had continuous possession of our bags
Dashed across the street for a bowl of insipid stir-fried noodles that may have tipped the scales against the trip to Petra. The Beach at Eilat/Dinner at Margaret Tayar’s package would almost certainly have trumped the Petra/Noodle combo.

There were actually quite a few cyclists on the short hop to Tel Aviv. By the time the day ended I had watched 106 cyclists dwindle down to 43 bus riders, to a dozen plane passengers, to three men sharing a cab to downtown Tel Aviv. When the cab made it’s first stop and Shelly and Eric got out at their hotel, it was reduced to one—one man still contemplating the meaning of it all. Did something really happen here? Has my life or anyone else’s been changed in any profound, if indefinable, way?

For now, I’m going with, “Yes.”

As for this final day in Israel, it was great spending it with friends, even if much of it was dedicated to waiting in multiple lines at the Israel-Jordan border, schlepping on the bus two hours each way, listening to the unrelenting, irritating patter of our tour guide, and a variety of other delays and annoyances.

To a large degree, the day served as group therapy for the withdrawal symptoms we all had in the absence of our daily fix of cycling. More than that, we were suffering from a case of communitas interruptis. Our community of riders mirrored in a few important ways the community of students and alumni of the Arava Institute. Ours was an environment in which everyone was valued and felt valued for exactly who they were regardless of demographic circumstances. Neither religion, nor nationality, nor age, nor even physical prowess stood as a barrier among us. It was a seamless enterprise with palpable affection and support. From this I deduce that we not only need to support Arava, we need to learn from it and replicate its model in other venues including business and politics.

At the final banquet Monday night I was among five riders acknowledged for raising over eight thousand dollars. In urging all of us to continue our fundraising efforts, David Lehrer correctly pointed out that each of us has very different capacity in this regard. It would be wrong to expect the two youngest riders—aged fourteen years—to have the same donor network as well established adults.

For that reason regardless of how well our pre-ride campaign had gone we were all asked to continue our efforts after the ride. I hasten to add that after spending a week with the Arava students and alumni who supported the ride, and after visiting the campus at Kibbutz Ketora, meeting and talking with additional students, there was little David had to say to make it evident that this is a remarkable organization richly deserving of further support. The money we raise provides for scholarships especially for students coming from homes that would find it reprehensible to support this kind of intercultural study. In a sea of anger, despair, and pessimism, the dialogue at Arava, the collaborations, and love engendered between Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Christian, Moslem, and Jew alike are a beacon of hope.



Monday, November 17, 2008

Day Five -- the big finish!


About three o’clock this afternoon, right after I lifted my bike high over my head and had the requisite photo by the Red Sea snapped, one of the ride crew members congratulated me for accomplishing this great feat. Clearly she was thinking of the five-day, 282-mile journey. For me it was much larger. When I tried to describe the eight-month, eight thousand mile journey that got me here I was unashamedly farklempt (the Tower of David is neither a tower nor did it have anything to do with David—discuss).

Today was the big finish. We were promised a few good climbs and one particularly long, steep, and beautiful descent onto Eilat. During our briefing session last night David Lehrer, director of the Arava Institute, suggested that many of us had already experienced the thrill of high speed descents and that we might want to savor this one a bit more. “You may get to the bottom wishing you had taken more time to enjoy the ride”—or some words to that effect. Will the metaphors ever cease?

I took him at face value and coaxed every bit out of today’s ride, stopping a few times to take in the view, and once to assist a new friend with a flat tire. It lived up to expectations with sandstone, limestone, and granite topography creating a rugged and colorful landscape. Just before we entered Eilat we came around a bend to see the Gulf and the city of Aqaba beyond it framed by the two cliffs between which we were emerging.

When I reached the bottom, my friend with the flat tire right behind me, the entire assembly of 105 riders was intact. We took a “victory lap” around a traffic circle and then, en masse, rode through the streets to reach the beach across the street from our hotel.

The partying began and will continue as we have a final banquet in just a few minutes. In between there was the typical daily flurry of activity around claiming luggage and laptops and day bags, and checking into the hotel, with the addition of breaking down and packing bicycles for shipment. Amazingly orderly chaos.

I’d love to sum up this whole experience with a few pithy remarks or predictions, but I suspect its true meaning will be revealed over time. I have met a number of people who have similar interests in the environment or in Judaism or in cycling or in all of these. Where these relationships will lead remains to be seen.

One conversation I had with a fellow rider this morning does capture at least one aspect of the experience. Yesterday I wrote about the occasional pin pricks of consciousness that I had experienced during the ride. I described this to her as analogous to sitting out in the hot tub and seeing a shooting star. It is brief, exciting, unpredictable, and a particularly rare occurrence. The exception being during a forecast meteor shower such as the Perseids in August. At such a time one might see a dozen or more shooting stars in one evening! The Israel Ride was like one of those starry nights with meteors of uncommon consciousness abounding.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Day Four

Days like today make me want to stop writing and taking photographs altogether. The problem is that they point out how useless my words and images are in describing the indescribable. There were moments today that were as close to being in heaven as I can imagine. Long thrilling descents at bicycle speeds I have never before approached, on open roads, with sweeping vistas of canyons or mesas or whatever they are, behind more canyons or mesas—colors and shapes in all directions filling my heart and soul. We had three major runs of this magnitude. In between there were periods of rolling hills, and of course some challenging ascents to get us to the point where we could take off on the downhills.

Every once in awhile throughout the ride there are these little pin pricks of consciousness where in addition to what is right in front of me—the road, the sun, the terrain, fellow cyclists—a little place in me has this revelation that “Oh my God, all these months of planning and training, and fund raising, have come to this moment. Yes! I am in Israel! I am over two hundred miles into this amazing challenge. It is now! It is real!” I drink it in and I know that as hard as it is to convey to you the majesty before me, only a part of it will stay in my memory. It is more than I can capture. I pray that at some level the experience will live on in me at another level that my brain alone is incapable of maintaining.

I had one other reflection during a period where the group had gotten stretched out, leaving me to riding without any other riders in sight—the peace of pedaling alone in the vast expanse, with only the sound of my bicycle rolling down the road. I have at various times here and elsewhere had the experience of riding alone and feeling truly alone, uncertain of where I am and where I am headed—a sense of alienation. I have also had experiences of being with a group and uncomfortable with the direction or the pace. Today I had the unique experience of my personal space and freedom while at the same time knowing that I am part of not only a highly organized group, but more important a loving and supporting community—a chevre. The combination of these thoughts provided a great sense of satisfaction.

Tonight we stay at Kibbutz Ketura, with its immense grove of date palms—their largest source of income. Tomorrow Eilat! This trip is in its waning stages. At one rest stop today I had to take the advice that I used to give every Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I stopped to look around, drink in the joy around me, and truly appreciate the moment. I suppose I should have said shehekhiyanu—it was one of those moments that I was very grateful to have been brought to.

Shabbat

Sometimes you don’t realize how hard you’ve been working until you stop. Clearly my body discovered that in a profound way today. I mentioned yesterday how I was looking forward to some rest this Sabbath day. That was my mind’s version of the situation. My body had a different take. It shut down like Mea Sh’arim on Yom Kippur. If I even dared to move (even to worship) it threw stones at me as if I had just violated the most sacred commandment.

I went down to an early breakfast—7:30 am—ate and shmoozed briefly with some ride buddies so as not to miss our tour guide’s walk to the edge of the makhtesh. Contrary to my report yesterday, we are not on the rim of a large crater or a canyon or anything else you have likely heard of. There are few makhteshim in the world—three notable ones, and a few others scattered about the Middle East. Their geological structure is unique. Wikipedia it if you want the details. What I find amusing is that this Hebrew word “makhtesh” is the common word used by geologists world over. Someone pointed out that “lava” as a term is similar in that it is a Hawaiian word.

The important thing is that the crumbled mountains of the makhtesh have created yet another spectacular view. We will get a close up look at the makhtesh tomorrow when we cycle however many meters down into it. I’m not sure how much climbing will be required to exit it!

This morning my intentions were to go straight from the walking tour of the makhtesh to Shabbat services. I carried my siddur the whole way. When we arrived back at the hotel my body started to protest. I had no option but to nap. After 20 minutes I was up and ready to go to services. Somehow, on the way, I ended up back in the dining room having some more breakfast with another set of ride buddies. At the conclusion of that I picked up my siddur and tallis bag. I had brought them with me in a second vain attempt to go to pray. Once again my body cast a veto. Unlike at home where I have been known to go to shul and occasionally nod out for a few minutes during the Haftara reading, this time I went directly to my room for another two hours of sleep. Finally, it seems, I had gotten the message that these short nights and long cycling days were demanding physical renewal on Shabbat far more than spiritual.

I woke up in time for lunch! The Israelis real know how to put out a spread of food. Enough said.

Later we all gathered to listen to the young alumni of the Arava Institute describe their experiences there. Very inspiring, not only regarding the environment, but all the more with regard to breaking barriers and stereotypes between Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians.... Each young person had a unique story and they all had a common thread. The vision is that \these will be the future leaders of their respective societies and will help break down barriers for all.

When the program ended one of the ride leaders started describing the rest of the day’s events as were approaching the end of Shabbat. Tears literally welled in my eyes at the very thought of seeing this Shabbat slip away into the night. I never needed Shabbat more in my life and I never wanted to hold onto it more. While this response is very much situational it also suggests to me the possibility of looking more carefully at Shabbat back home. This week is an extreme example that points to how hard we work and how much we need to take a break. It is easy to overlook the stresses of even a “normal” week and how important Shabbat is every week.

The day ended with a briefing on tomorrow’s ride—hard to believe we will be back in the saddle again. Dinner followed the briefing—of course!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Day Three


Let’s see, did we ride bikes today? Oh yes, that must have been what we were doing just before we checked into this hotel in Mitzpe Ramon where I just finished receiving a soothing Swedish massage. Everything before that is sort of lost in the haze.

I can remember now...the third consecutive “morning” rising under a black sky, the moon still quite full above. Today’s ride was shorter than the previous two days in order that we all get settled in here before Shabbat. Candle lighting is only a few minutes away at 4:12 pm. Some of our group opted for an additional off-road cycling experience. I chose not to. Let’s see...a couple of hours of bumpy mountain biking or a massage? Hmmmmmmmm....

Heading out as early as we do does provide some spectacular moonsets and sunrises. Today’s panoramas reminded me of the United States southwest, as little of it as I’ve ever seen. The thrill of riding down long slopes with seemingly unending landscapes spread out in all directions. Buttes. Mesas. Canyons. Whatever they are called here. Very hospitable weather. If I believe my bike’s gauge it may have gotten into the eighties in the middle of the day, but the breezes made it feel much cooler—quite unlike the three-digit temperatures experienced in the last May ride.

One vantage point from which to gaze on the vast Negev is the terrace at David Ben Gurion’s grave site. Ben Gurion, the “George Washington” of Israel lived out his waning days on a kibbutz in the Negev that he so loved. Unlike other Israeli dignitaries he chose to be buried here rather than the military cemetery in Jerusalem if for no other reason than to lure others here to add to populating the desert. Our stop here included breakfast and davening at the edge of the canyon. The backdrop for prayer today made yesterday’s scene pale in comparison.

The ride itself consisted of a series of long steady climbs. For every rise there is a fall, which in this case is a good thing. The descents were often spectacular evoking once again my involuntary gleeful shouts.

Anticipating the challenge of the long climbs, the staff encouraged us to select someone to whom we would each dedicate today’s ride. I have mentioned in previous blogs that with our event starting on the anniversary of my father’s death he would be in my heart this week. Today, however, I focused my energy on my brother. I wrote his Hebrew name—harav Yisrael Lev ben harav Shimon—on a label and affixed it to my jersey as we were asked to do. There were times when each push of the pedal was a real challenge. Weeks ago, when my knees ached during training, I would silently chant with each stroke of the pedals—words like “strength” and “healing”—and direct this to my knees. Today, when the uphill going got tough, with every stroke, I sent healing, strength, courage, and wholeness (shalem) to Jeff.

I have never more looked forward to a Shabbat than this one at Mitzpe Ramon. I certainly look forward to the physical rest. After the intensity of touring and cycling I look forward to the spiritual breather as well.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Day Two





As we approached mile seventy-two this afternoon I was actually feeling stronger than I did at the start of the day. Having never done back-to-back sixty-plus mile rides, having been off my bike for the two previous weeks (and feeling a bit sore from day one), I had my doubts about day two. But over the course of the day I loosened up and the road itself became increasingly user-friendly. So it was a very pleasant second day....

I woke up to the sound of my watch alarm at 4:20 am. The first thing I did was throw open the drapes and walk out on the balcony over looking the Mediterranean. The full moon shone brightly high in the sky occasionally obscured by dark clouds. It’s reflection in the sea was pleasant enough, but two flashes of lightening over the water did not bode well for our day’s journey. Then came the rain. Would we even ride today?

Fortunately, by the time I went down to claim my bike and get the first of the many feedings that are an essential part of the ride, the sky was clearing and showing some preliminary signs of the breaking dawn. As the day progressed the weather only became more and more favorable. Billowing clouds served to provide additional contrast and color to the continuously changing landscape.

If the two flashes of lightening were an omen of anything perhaps they forecast the two flat tires I picked up in the first leg of today’s journey. Even those were no real distraction because the mechanics responded quickly and changed my tire faster than I could open my tool kit.

The early going this morning was not as spectacular as our departure from Jerusalem yesterday. The first half of the day necessitated our riding along the most heavily traveled road of the week.

There was still a lot to look at and we made a couple of colorful stops. At mile twenty we broke for breakfast near a large water treatment center within view of Gaza. The food was distinctly Israeli, ample and delicious. What I enjoyed most, however, were the morning prayers—the combination of the drumming and chanting, and the sheer spectacle of the daveners standing on the sandy slope like colorful flowers facing the sun. Jews praying in the morning are picturesque enough with flowing prayer shawls, and tefillen wrapped around their arms and hanging on their foreheads. Overlay that image on a group of men and women in colorful cycling regalia, in front of the giant dish of the Jewish National Fund’s water recycling system. Surreal.

But the ride is the thing, and the most difficult to describe. When I’m rolling I am loathe to stop and take pictures despite the many scenic temptations—the setting orange moon hanging above the ocean—palm trees and ruins of what appeared to be Roman ruins silhouetted in the foreground. Just one image that I allowed to burn in my mind’s eye rather than my Nikon. Sometimes I lose myself in the physical challenges—the road, my cadence, my muscles, shifting gears, watching traffic and other riders. At other times I find myself pedaling in sync with another rider and we get a chance to chat.

The end of the day found us moving into the north Negev. The open landscape, mild temperatures, and gently rolling roads made it the most pleasant riding of the day. For a half hour or more I had a riding partner in a graduate of the Arava Institute. Gonen is 33 years old, with a young family, and after graduating from one Arava professional program he is continuing on for a PhD.

We covered many subjects. He described some of the powerful features of the Arava program. Typically students study current literature on environmental issues, but they do not stop there. Then they go out and see first hand the projects they read about and talk to the principle people involved, giving real depth to their understanding.

They also have the opportunity to meet with an array of Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Sometime their conversations are focused on the environment, other times on the other critical aspect of Arava—Israeli-Arab relations. Gonen has made great friends from a community that is accessible to only few Israelis. As daunting as peace among these people may seem he feels that their ability to bridge the gulf is a small but important move in the right direction.

It was not too surprising that when all the riders got together to talk about the highlights of our day another person rose and said that he road along side Gonen and had a great conversation!


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Day One


Getting out of Jerusalem was slow and tedious. We missed our scheduled 5:45 a.m. departure. So many people with so much to manage. Nonetheless, we finally gathered with our bikes around dawn just outside the property walls of the hotel. The travelers’ prayer was recited in Hebrew, Arabic and English. A rabbi from Connecticut sang the names of the four shofar sounds to cue my blasts which were more than adequate, and off we went. Within the city we had to fight early commute traffic until we met up with our police escort. From that point forward it was a good deal smoother.

Even with all the stopping and starting through the crowded streets, just seeing signs in Hebrew and knowing that we were indeed cycling through Jerusalem—this was extraordinary. There were some magnificent descents with the Jerusalem hills as counterpoint. We attacked one of the trip's more significant climbs as we left the city—very grand. Reminiscent of California landscape—maybe more like SoCal than the Bay Area. Overall the scenery all day was rich. Some of the long speedy downhills surrounded by breathtaking views evoked the kind of yahoo that I am moved to shout descending Skyline Road. A good deal of farm lands and orchards. The climbs were reasonable. That first long climb was not as tough as Old La Honda Road in Woodside, so I felt well prepared. The program makes an effort to keep riders relatively near one another unlike many charity rides at home. The support, the snacks at rest stops, the lunch, the tourist spiels were all handled with aplomb. There were many opportunities to chat with fellow riders while riding or at the various stops.

Nothing was sweeter than at last rolling into Ashqelon and seeing the shimmering blue Mediterranean in the late afternoon sun. We have precious little time between activities—check-in, shower, dinner, briefings for tomorrow, sleep if possible and set out bright and early again in the morning.

Altogether a very satisfying first day.



Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Erev Ride

Jerusalem
10:43 p.m.

Just called down for a 4:20 a.m. wake up call. That’s assuming I fall asleep. It has finally arrived. The eve of the big ride. Other than a morning tour of the Old City, I’ve spent most of the day focused on ride logistics.

The tour started with a short bus ride to the Mount of Olives with that classic panorama of the Old City. From there we walked. None of it had the power of some of my earlier visits. Not quite enough time at the Wall—even on Dad’s yartzeit. I pressed my head against the stone, mumbled my usual morning ablutions, adding as many words of the Kaddish as I could recall. Wrote the names of ailing loved ones on a small slip of paper, folded it into a skinny rectangle and wedged it in a crevice, praying for their wholeness and healing.

Sometimes you just do what you do. I felt more emotion later telling someone about my experience at the wall than I did when I stood there. Perhaps that’s why one is not supposed to recite the mourners’ Kaddish alone—it needs to be a shared experience.

Later, with joy I became reacquainted with my bicycle after a two-week separation. With great satisfaction I extracted it from its cardboard shipping carton, and with a little help from a mechanic reassembled it. I could barely wait to take it on a little test spin up Mount Scopus to the Hebrew University campus and back. I would have loved to ride around the campus but it is sealed tight as a drum with barbed wire and guards checking IDs at the gate. The ride was short, but very sweet.

I need to put down this pen and pray for some sleep. I can’t believe it’s all actually starting in a few hours—5:30 a.m. stretch; 5:40 am travelers’’ prayer followed by shofar blasts; 5:45 a.m. wheels rolling!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Knock, knock, knockin’...

My departure from Stockholm had an eerie darkness to it—not just because it was five a.m. It seemed like one of those bookend scenes from a movie that sets up the flashback at the beginning and then returns to frame the ending. I could almost feel the credits rolling up the blackness of the road ahead as the cab driver switched on his radio to the strains of Dylan singing knock, knock, knockin’ on Heaven’s door.

After ten rich days of traveling with Debbie we had just said our goodbyes and wished each other well as today we journey independently for the next one week plus. She will fly with her sister Judi to visit Judi’s daughter and granddaughters in Nairobi this evening, while I (gulp) finally head for Israel. None of this comes as a surprise after months of preparations, yet embarking on this next phase of our travels is having unanticipated impact.

Last night was an event. When Judi learned that we would be coming to Stockholm—her home for over forty years, where Debbie and I had only once visited as a couple back in 1975—she immediately decided to host a party in our honor with the local mishbucha (family and in this case a few friends as close as family). She made quiches and cakes, set out candies and nuts, lit candles in every room—the place glowed as the guest punctually arrived as is the local custom. The room immediately became a din of conversation and children’s activity.

My brother-in-law, Chief Rabbi Emeritus of Stockholm Morton Narrowe, convened us in the living room for Havdalah—the ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath. He made it a teaching moment, presumably for the few gentiles in the room. The rite itself is one I have greatly enjoyed over the years, though inexplicably have rarely performed at home. I appreciate the way it distinguishes between the beauty and peace of the Shabbat versus the mundane work week. It bids farewell to Shabbat even as it allows it’s spirituality to linger like the fragrant aroma of the spice box that we use, and the wisps of smoke from the braided candle as it is extinguished by the wine. We always conclude with two Hebrew words—shavua tov, good week—which I heard last night with an intensity as never before.

The plans of the week ahead flashed in my mind the second I uttered those words, what a huge, huge shavua lies ahead. Shavua tov—I will leave for Israel before the rest of the house wakes up. Shavua tov—Debbie and I will find ourselves greatly separated after an unusually intense period of closeness. Shavua tov—she will head to adventures in Obama’s homeland, in an animal preserve, in the home of our niece. Shavua tov—I will at last set foot in Eretz Yisrael and begin the challenging trek that has been the focus of so much energy for so many weeks. Those two words—shavua tov—have never been more pregnant with meaning. In the instant that I sensed all of this my eyes welled up with emotion. Shavua tov—a good week—indeed.

With the complex mixture of emotions—elation, sadness, fear, excitement, bewilderment, joy—I slowly opened the door from Judi and Mort’s apartment house to see the cab waiting a few meters away at almost the correct address. When he saw me he pulled forward and helped me put my bags in the back of the vehicle. I entered the cab and sat on the clean, comfortable, leather upholstered seat, handed the driver my credit card as he took off toward Arlanda and the Stockholm airport. A gentle rain fell from the black sky. I felt uneasy, not sure if I were ending or beginning something, knowing ultimately that it was a mixture of both. I settled back in the cab, staring blankly beyond the sweeping windshield wipers at the dark road ahead. The driver extended his right arm and turned on an oldies station.

Knock, knock, knockin’, on Heaven’s door...

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Short Drive in Montalchino

I learned the meaning of an Italian traffic sign today. It looks like a horizontal bar of red with a short vertical bar of white attached below the midpoint, making it a wide, two-toned T. It means the road ends, and I learned this, you might say, the hard way.

Deb and I had just finished walking around our fourth Italian hill town of the day, feeling a little saturated. It was five p.m. or as they say here seventeen. We might have stayed in Montalchino a little longer, but our parking had expired and we needed to move the car anyway—or at least feed the meter. We couldn’t be sure since there was no English on any of the pertinent signage where we parked. I thought I had performed a minor miracle just making sure we hadn’t been towed.

Next stop was Buonoconvento where the hostess of our villa assured us we would find a good dinner. We climbed into our Fiat hatchback, took a few minutes to assess the possible routes. I remarked to Debbie that I was glad we were leaving before dark, as it had been a somewhat serpentine route up to this village. I saw on the map that we could get there by the S2 highway or by a smaller more direct road.

I backed out of the diagonal parking space and headed down Via Spahni in the direction I had taken to arrive at this spot. Only a few meters ahead was an intersection which due to the subsequent trauma I can only vaguely recall. From the vantage of hind sight it makes me recall a Rilke poem that describes everything directly in front of the author’s face as stone. As I looked ahead I saw the aforementioned red and white T-shaped sign. It was only one of numerous glyphs I had encountered and struggled to comprehend throughout my now day-and-a-half of driving in Italy. Slowly I was coming to see the pattern language among them so I led myself to believe. “This T must mean I can turn either left or right.” I thought. I didn’t really stop to examine the flaw in that logic when intuitively something told me that left was not really an option. There was more road to the left but I think there may have been a small barrier or something to suggest that it was not for automobile use. Seeing a van a few meters down to the right parked at an angle to the left side of the road again, intuitively, I believed a right turn was in order. (So much for intuition.) The only challenge it seemed was squeezing between the tail of the van and the wall of the building that flanked the right of this small downwardly sloped lane. I weaved past, not wanting to do damage to either vehicle. The short piece of road that remained until its end, maybe ten meters, ahead was clear.

More than halfway down—whether it was Debbie or me who noticed it first I can’t say—I suddenly slammed on the brakes when we both realized the end of the road met the intersection of the cross road ahead with a precipitous drop of a meter or two! No barrier. No sign other than the one I had now clearly misinterpreted. Just a short cliff.

Whew! Glad we saw that in time. Now I was really glad we had left with some daylight left or there is no question we would have driven unceremoniously off this short cliff.

Now the fun began. All I had to do was put the stick shift car in reverse up a steep hill and squeeze it through the narrow passage between the van and the wall. Piece of torte.


I stepped on the brake, set the gear in reverse, lifted up on the clutch, the car lurched forward even closer to the stone ledge. My God this is hard to do! The force of gravity and my inexperience was sending the car in exactly the wrong direction. I had few such attempts available to me before disaster would ensue. Now I reasoned that the hand brake would have to participate in this. I had to ensure I was fully engaged in reverse before moving.

I pulled up the hand brake, carefully set the gear, revved the motor, released the brake to an elephants’ squeal, the smell of burning clutch, and crookedly jerked the vehicle up the stone lane heading toward the narrow gap. “Stop!!!” Debbie cried out, keeping me from smacking into the wall—or so she perceived and believe me I didn’t know any better. How am I going to thread this needle?

I eased the car back down the hill a little bit to improve the angle of attack when as if sent by one of the arch angels the owner of the van appeared and removed what was now the greatest impediment. I had only to engage the elephants and burning clutch one more time to successfully extricate ourselves from what only a few moments earlier was certain doom.

Just another instance of a phenomenon we had been tracking throughout the trip. In travel as in life—so many grand themes of survival and relationship seem to play out daily. Perseverance. Focus. Trust. Hope. Courage. Confidence. Communication. Team work. Delight. Disappointment. Flexibility. Salvation.

The coda to this little tale—tame by comparison, but telling nonetheless—was only minutes away. As I drove our little chariot in circles around the town unable to connect to the road that had led us in, I decided that “down” was all we really needed to concern ourselves with. I took the next available road that headed in that direction. How could that fail? The answer came gradually as the road narrowed into a single lane dirt path going perhaps somewhere, perhaps not. As our confidence faded with the afternoon sky, I saw a car poking out of a perpendicular road ahead. I stopped our car in front of the other, giving us the opportunity to ask the way to Buonoconvento of this farmer who spoke no English. Saint Christopher was still looking out for us as the man indicated that all we needed to do was follow him.

And we did. Grazie mille!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Stones

35,000 feet above Canada.
Somewhere between Fort McMurray and Churchill.
Having just finished watching Martin Scorcese’s chronicle of the Rolling Stones—Shine a Light.

It affected me in a surprising way. I’m not sure exactly why I selected it from the case of videos the flight attended offered after we boarded. I suppose I had heard some good things about it, but I’ve not typically been a big fan of rock films. The preliminary scenes of Scorcese and the band hassling over arrangements was more compelling than the opening rock numbers, I wasn’t even sure I’d last watching the whole concert. Fortunately, Scorsese peppered it with old film clips of the band, especially interviews from their early years that gave a larger context to the film. It was more of a telescopic view of the lives of four artists. The vintage segments were used sparingly and powerfully.

Early on one interviewer banally asked how long the band expected to continue. Baby faced Jagger replied with honest wonder that he was surprised that they had already lasted two years. He figured they might be good for one more. Later in the film Dick Cavett asked Jagger if he could picture himself still rocking at sixty. Jagger unhesitatingly replied in the affirmative which drew laughter from the audience. Little did they know.

This made me wonder about my future and my past. I am sixty. There were few things that I was doing in my twenties that would have warranted such a question. Then again I’m not Mick Jagger. Still it’s a great question of anyone at any age. To set it up properly I think I would first ask something along the lines of, “What are you doing now that most excites you?” Then I’d follow that with, “...and do you see yourself still doing it in twenty, thirty, forty years?”

What I was doing in my early twenties was mostly art. Making some. Teaching some. It is hard to place myself back in the mindset of that time or even to pick a single point in time from which to evaluate those questions. The answers would change so rapidly from phase to phase—as an art student, as an art teacher, as an architecture student.... Of course all of those experiences became the bedrock of who I am today as an architect and a trainer.

More than this retrospective look I was drawn, during the course of watching this film, to think about my future.

What excites me now? Training. Design. Writing. Tikkun olam. Prayer. Eldering. Cycling. A nice list.

Do I see myself doing any or all of these even twenty years from now?

“You bet.”

(Let the audience laugh if they think I’m kidding.)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

More Blessings

We went to shul this morning--Debbie and I. This is a rare occurrence in itself. One congregant told me she searched the Yartzeit list to see if we were their to honor the memory of a departed loved one. Why else would both of us be there?

We were there not to give blessing so much as to receive. Yes, we recited the blessing over the Torah. That was an honor given us to position us on the bema to receive the rabbi’s blessing for our trip. I had arranged this in advance. I knew it was something I wanted to do. Debbie was willing to join me in shul for this. I suspect neither of us anticipated exactly what it would mean to receive this blessing.

We ascended the bema. I touched my tallit to the text in the scroll that was to be read. I kissed the tallit and extended it to Debbie's lips for her to show her reverence to the Torah as well. I placed my hands on the turned wooden handles of the scroll. We chanted the ancient Hebrew words praising the source of this precious heritage. After the reader chanted the Torah verses we added the concluding prayers and then turned to the rabbi for his blessing.

His words were rich with meaning for each of us and for the two of us as a couple. All I had expected was some version of the traveler’s prayer that asks God to guide one in peace, keep one from dangers on the way, bring blessing to the work of one's hands, and return one home in peace. The rabbi included that. He prefaced it, however, with words that blessed our relationship, that spoke of our spiritual growth, that called for my deeper connection to the causes for which I am riding--peace and the environment. He said more. My memory fails me. What I do remember clearly was the welling of tears in my eyes as he touched my soul so deeply, and the warmth of Debbie's presence at my side.

It was a true blessing.

Debbie and I left the bimah changed. I felt a connection that I know we will maintain as we fling ourselves half a world away. Two connected souls in strange new beautiful bewildering inspiring places.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Blessings

from VACILLATION

My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessèd and could bless.

William Butler Yeats

Tonight I received blessings from my men’s group.

It would take more time and space than I care to allot to this blog to adequately describe this group, its purpose, process, and people. Suffice it to say that we have been meeting weekly for over seventeen years. We don’t do what a lot of other men would do at a regular Thursday night meeting. No booze. No gambling. No cigars. No sports. Nor is it a therapy group—although it is highly therapeutic.

It is a space where our authentic selves are allowed not only to exist, but to flourish.

Tonight was my turn to lead. Given that this is my last night with the group before I take off with Debbie for a week in Italy, a few days with family in Stockholm, and then the big ride, I looked forward to this evening with some anticipation. Still, I didn’t know what theme I would introduce until this afternoon.

As I was walking to Como Esta for lunch I thought about how this Shabbat I will attend synagogue and receive or recite—not sure which—the traveler’s blessing. Debbie might even join me! This is something I look forward to, and at the same time it makes me wonder. What is a blessing, anyway? Is it a fiction? Do blessings really exist? Who has the power to bless? Does a blessee have to receive the blessing for the blessor’s action to be valid? What have been the greatest blessings I have received? And what about the opposite—curses?

These were the issues we pondered for nearly two hours. Toward the end I had us pair up and ask one another what blessing the other would like, and then give him that blessing.

It was moving, warm, and deeply felt. I proceeded to close the session by turning down the lights so the lone candle was the only illumination. I began singing a favorite niggun—wordless Jewish melody. After several rounds of the niggun I reached to sound the chime that we use to signal the end of our ritual. Barry interrupted me. I was ready to clobber him, because it was not the first time I had attempted to end a session and he had something to add. I’m glad I didn’t clobber him. He interrupted to suggest that before I depart on my long and to some degree dangerous journey that each of us would give me one more blessing.

I gladly took them in—

Blessings that I find what I seek. Blessings for my physical and metaphysical well being. Blessings for my heart and soul to be deeply connected to source through my wanderings.

It seems, so great my happiness, that I am blessèd and can bless.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Compared to What?

“Compared to what?”

That was the punch line of some standing family joke when I was a kid. I don’t remember the setup, but today as I was riding up Old La Honda Road (for the fifth time) I became acutely aware of the continual commentary of comparisons coursing through my mind.

I’ve mentioned Old La Honda Road before. Its impact on Peninsula cyclists was well summarized in a blog by a Felix Wong:

Ma
ny cyclists on the SF Bay Area Peninsula seem to know their best time up Old La Honda Rd., as it provides some measure of one’s climbing aptitude (both relative to your previous self, and to others).

The official start of the hill climb is the stone bridge; the end is the stop sign at the top of the intersection of Old La Honda and Skyline Blvd.

The course record, according to various posts on USENET newsgroups, is a few ticks under 15 minutes (14:50 or so), and is either owned by Dr. Eric Heiden (the Olympic speed-skating champion who lived 2/3rds up Old La Honda), or a guy named Mike Murray.

The Western Wheelers even has a “rider category system” based on a rider’s times up Old La Honda. (This helps match cyclists with Western Wheeler rides of his or her appropriate level of difficulty). The system is as follows:

Category A: total novice
Category B: it takes the cyclist 40-60 minutes to go up Old La Honda
Category C: 30-40 minutes
Category D: 25-30 minutes
Category E: 20-25 minutes
Category F: under 20 minutes


I’m in category B, and t
hat’s a great accomplishment for me. My five assaults on this monument to strength and endurance were as follows.

1. Made it about a third of the way up before feeling light headed
2. Stopped to catch my breath about 10 times. Managed to finish in about an hour and a half.
3. Stopped only 3 or 4 times. Completed in about an hour.
4. Made it to the top without stopping! 47 minutes.
5. Today 45 minutes!

Of course I was passed frequently by more accomplished cyclists. On my previous climb I actually managed to pass a person--an octogenarian with an outmoded bicycle.

As two guys passed me today I felt the need to share with them the fact that I too had passed someone once, and I mentioned the age. One of the riders replied. “Did he have one leg?”

So I spend a lot of time judging and comparing. If I manage to get beyond comparing myself to the younger, stronger people with whom I ride I am still plagued by comparing myself to me! I’m not just talking cycling here, of course. Every time I accomplish something it seems I set a new bar for myself, and subsequently feel the challenge, the pressure to surpass whatever it was I managed to eke out previously.

Why do I torture myself this way?

There is probably an answer in Eastern thought somewhere. Sounds like a topic Krishnamurti used to talk about. No doubt it is a very common human proclivity. Nonetheless, it would be nice, from time to time, to simply be, and accept, and grow (or no) without all the angst.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Sleepless in Palo Alto

The mind is so busy. Darting from issue to issue like a hummingbird constantly feeding itself. Such busy-ness. Work. Cycling. Elul. High Holy Day preparations. Forgiveness.

I wonder why I have been writing so little of late. Sometimes that part of me goes dormant, and when I become aware of it I realize that an important part of my mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being is absent. Interesting that this is occurring during a period of intense physical focus. Perhaps there is an involuntary balancing of fields of energy that moves the flow from one domain to the other. I’m not really buying that, but it’s a thought.

Recently I have been pouring a great deal of intellectual and creative energy into solving issues at work. Consciously, intentionally, or not it seems I have taken on the mantel of driving the firm to meet our corporate commitment to develop a corps of 200 professionals who have achieved accreditation in the field of sustainability this year. Not that it is even in my control. Not that I can take all the credit for this accomplishment should it come to pass (and it looks pretty good that it will). Nonetheless, as sustainability learning leader, I am certainly focusing more of my attention on supporting this effort than anyone else. It is a rewarding task just for the reasons implicit in the preceding statement. Where I can directly support people pursuing the accreditation it is very satisfying. And where I learn of those who accomplish this distinction without my involvement--these discoveries are delightful too.

I am also getting to a point in the design of a new course on sustainable real estate operations where the pieces are finally pulling together in a coherent way. This is a phase in the design process that has moved me from a state of anguished searching to blissful arrival ever since I was in architecture school lo those many years ago. It’s a little like this pre-dawn hour. All is dark. I am alone with my thoughts and struggles. Sometimes I lose sight of the fact that the dawn will rise today as it has through the ages. And when it does--what a joy!

The bike thing has pieces of that. A lot of it is physical. I won’t list all the places where my body is in that state of anguished searching. But they are there. My sessions with my cycling coach are a real mixture of pain and pleasure, with the emphasis on the former. As I look down at my aching thighs propelling the pedals relentlessly, counting the minutes and seconds toward the completion of my exercise, I try to convince myself that I will reap the rewards when I pedal across the desert in just a few weeks. Tune in later for that chapter--I hope.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

If I Knew Then What I Know Now

Today I achieved the milestone of completing my first bike ride of fifty miles. As I neared the end of it I wondered, “If, when I signed up for the Israel Ride, I had known how grueling even fifty miles would be, would I have dared take on the goal of 300?”

Before I spend more time second-guessing myself, I should really give myself a break and acknowledge the accomplishment of getting through today's ride. At one stop along the way the thermometer read 99 degrees in the shade. Where I was riding, which typically was unshaded, and receiving another dose of heat radiating from the pavement, the temperature readout on my bicycle computer was 109.5 degrees. Any way you measure it, it was hot!

So this is an achievement. It closely resembles what I imagine to be the worst conditions we could face in the Negev in November.

While heat and hydration were issues today, they were not the greatest challenges. Frankly the most disturbing part of the ride can be reduced to simple physics. Too much time supporting too much weight on too tiny a perch--if you get my drift. This is an issue I have been attacking from several fronts lately. I have been trying different saddles, and different shorts--all designed to extend the time one may be expected to comfortably ride. Perhaps more important, although no one else has suggested this, is that I have lost a few pounds since I started working with an Olympic cycling coach last week. (Oh yeah, I finally decided that a novice cyclist who creates his own training program has a fool for a trainee.)

But let’s explore the original question. Would I have taken on this challenge if I had really understood the pain involved in meeting it? Like many hypothetical questions, we will really never know. As a general rule, however, I can reflect on other instances in my life that have had unforeseen obstacles. There were times where the challenges were overwhelming and others where they were overcome. That still doesn't answer the questions as to whether prior knowledge of them would have scuttled the mission before it was even launched.

We all have our own litany of adversities, many of mine, at least in regard to cycling, I have chronicled in these pages. I think of hill climbs or falling, just to mention two. Hill climbs will not be going away. They will never be stress and pain free. Additional falls, God-wiling will not occur, but the risk of them happening also will never disappear as long as I continue to ride.

It is understandable that today I--overheated, thirsty, left knee throbbing, ischial tuberosities aching--would ask myself if I'd be doing this if I really knew how much it would hurt. Sometimes it is better not to know what obstacles lie ahead. On the other hand, if I had the gift of perfect foresight it might well be comprehensive enough to provide a view of the eventual outcome. Then I would have some defined trade-offs to weigh against one another. In this case it would be the known pain in the butt versus the unknown but much anticipated thrill of the Israel Ride, and its potential educational, social, environmental, and spiritual benefits that I would evaluate. (Or maybe even the possibility that I will find the elusive comfortable saddle.)

Would I do it all over again? The answer will be revealed soon enough in my deeds, not my words when, as I suspect I will, I get back on the bike and ride off to the hills.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Needs and Wants

It was a typical morning in some respects, and not in others. Getting up in the middle of the night is quite ordinary, but generally it is unplanned. Getting up just ahead of my alarm at 3:30 a.m.--that's different. Today it was about getting out of the house by 4:15 for my 6:05 departure from SFO.

At 4:15 a.m. exactly I could feel the pressure building as Debbie searched for her keys and then ran back into the house for her glasses. Of course I took the wheel of the car at 4:18 a.m. to make up the “lost time”. I managed to pull up at the curb at the departure level of United Airlines at 4:38. What a hero.

I stood in the Premiere Executive line waiting to check my bags, all the while evaluating the length of the other lines, calculating how many attendants were staffing how many automated check-in kiosks, and evaluating whether the parties ahead of me were fully cognizant of available kiosks as other passengers completed their tasks. So much calculating going on. You could say this became moot when I at last logged on and learned that my flight departure would be delayed until 6:40 a.m.

“S#!%!” was my immediate one word response. I knew that I had a finite number of minutes (92 to be exact) in the Hartford area to land, pick up bags, hail a cab, take the half hour drive from Windsor Locks to Hartford, and make it on the last bus to Great Barrington where I planned to meet my cousin at his restaurant. A quick calc suggested that this was still doable. I kept moving forward.

The calculations and evaluations continued as I approached the all important spot in the security queue where my analysis would trigger a decision as to which line had more people and/or was moving faster. I guessed right and sailed through even with a few small containers of liquids that went undetected.

The vibration on my hip told me an email message was coming in on my Blackberry. United Airlines update. Departure moved back to 7:05. Suddenly I realized this was not necessarily a one hour delay of my overall air travel. I could very well arrive at O'Hare too late to make my connection to Hartford at O’Hare altogether.

It really isn’t about the long list of events that underwent my constant scrutiny this morning. Not about which concession stand was or was not open, or did or did not have bacon and sausage in all of its breakfast fare; or about Avis not having a Great Barrington office, or the Avis agent not knowing where the closest office would be to Great Barrington. It is not about grabbing a pre­made tuna sandwich before boarding, or ending up behind a whining baby, or being asked by the baby’s mother to change seats with her husband in row 13 so they could sit together (which actually worked out well, since it got me away from the baby). It is not about any one or the entire series of events.

It is about a single moment as I sat chewing on my dry sandwich watching but not listening to the in-flight movie. As a woman stood up blocking my view of the screen it suddenly hit me what a steady stream of judgments flows through my mind. This is not shocking news in itself. It was just felt at a deeper level than I’ve noticed before. It is ALL about: do I like it or do I not? Do I want it or do I not? Is it good or is it not? Is it making me happy or is it not?

With that as context I started to think about the differences between needs and wants. Soooooooooo much is about what I want. Generally my wants have something to do with pleasure seeking or pain avoidance. I want to leave on time so I can arrive on time so I can catch my bus and avoid being stranded in Hartford or having to pay hundreds for a rental car. I want Boudin to open to I can get the fresh turkey sandwich in stead of the dry tuna sandwich from Just Desserts. I want. I want. I want.

My mind moved to “the bike saga”. I need a healthy and strong body. If I do that it will hurt less going up hills, but I want to taste tacos and chips and salsa and ice cream with chocolate sauce. If I am healthy and strong I will have the endurance to pedal longer distances up steeper hills, but instead of working out I often want to take an afternoon nap and listen to Ralph Barbieri interview some jock who is in shape.

I am suddenly taken by a new concept. What if I made my myriad evaluations, judgments, and decisions based on needs rather than wants? I am such a slave to my wants. My center of want is like a tyrant running roughshod over my needs. What if I gave my needs even just a little more air time? Let’s try it.

I am now sitting in the exit row with three seats to myself having miraculously just made the connection at O’Hare to the Hartford flight heading for an early arrival! (The center of want seems to be a pessimist. Things tend to work out much better than the want bugger expects.) The flight attendant asks if I want a drink and some pretzels. When did I ever say no? Then again, that is all about want. Do I need a snack? No.

“No thank you, “ I reply.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Up and Down

Yes, "up and down" is a common theme in this series of blogs--as well it should be. Riding the bike. Living life. Anyone contemplating either of these lofty issues is bound to notice the cyclic nature, pardon the pun.

Today marked a grand achievement. Whereas earlier this week my bicycle odometer turned over 1,000 miles, today’s achievement was grander than that (another unintended pun--think about it). Today I ascended Old La Honda Road all the way to Skyline Boulevard for the very first time. Given the effort to accomplish this I can’t say there will be many more such occasions. Albeit I stopped often--more frequently as I went along. It took me an hour and a half to go the three and a half miles. I’m figuring it was about a 1,100 foot climb as well.

The ascent was hard. Very hard. A few weeks ago, the first time I tried this, I managed to go about two-thirds of a mile before I needed to stop for a breather. At that point I felt light headed as well, and decided it might not be wise to push on further. Since then I had a chat with Deb’s colleague, an avid and experienced cyclist, Teri. Her coaching was to stop as long and as often as I needed, and then to keep going. Today I heeded Teri’s sage counsel, and the results speak for themselves. The allegory alarm just went off! Persevere, blah, blah, blah....

The way down was an all together different experience. I have mentioned some of the concerns that pass through this cyclist’s mind on descents. Whatever I may have encountered previously pales in comparison to today’s experience. An eleven hundred foot drop on a narrow, serpentine road, lined with redwood trees and precipitous canyons--this gets ones attention! Throughout this portion of the ride the words of my friend, John Carlsen, spoken on a ride we took together months ago, echoed in my mind with keener significance. Back then, when I was grousing about climbing hills and exulting about speeding down them, he mentioned that many experienced cyclists truly enjoy the climb more than the descent. During the climb, he explained, one gets a sense of accomplishment--real work is being done. Whereas during the descent that is replaced with naked fear. I understood that before. I really get it now.

Of course all of this is informed, aptly, by the little spill I had a few weeks ago. Ergo, as magnificent as the surroundings were--majestic trees and vistas--my focus was on the pavement, the sound of approaching cars, and the fluctuating width of shoulder that the road provided. Sometimes it disappeared altogether and I had to take a commanding position on the highway. Whenever possible I moved cautiously to the right of the white stripe on the shoulder. Virtually the entire ride down I was in the dropped handle bar position gripping the brakes. Only occasionally was the road wide enough, smooth enough, and straight enough where letting go of them was not an entirely suicidal maneuver.

One of the beautiful aspects of my many stops on the way up the road was the opportunity to simply take in the natural wonders around me. I am quite conscious of the fact that I opted to ride today, Shabbat, rather than attend synagogue. Sadly, the ritual there is often not as compelling as a stand of redwood trees against a crystalline sky. To compensate, if that is the word, for non-attendance in shul, I engaged quite consciously in full appreciation of what I held before me. It would have been a great loss not to do the same were I fully preoccupied with my survival on the way down. Though my body did not demand that I stop on the descent the way it did on the way up, my soul asked for a few breaks to soak it all in on this picture perfect afternoon.

Sometimes up is torture. Sometimes it is triumph. Sometimes down is ecstasy. Sometime dread. One of my cycling friends told me some weeks ago that this venture was not so much about quads and hamstrings, calves and gluts, but about the mass of “muscle” between the ears. The mind can frame and reframe every experience. I could easily say that both up and down were terrible in their own ways, and they were. Then why do I feel so good about them both?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Three Paragraphs

I wrote about preparing. And I wonder. Am I truly preparing or merely preparing to be preparing? Or worse yet, pretending to be preparing.

I have to ask, because I feel a certain approach avoidance pulling me further away from my goals rather than nearer, at least of late. I wonder if a very old friend of mine--fear of success--is riding with me on this mission.

Among the things I am preparing for in this Season of Preparing is the Davening Leadership Training Institute (DLTI) in which I am enrolled and will commence classes in a few weeks. There will be four one week sessions separated by six months. DLTI is separate and somehow connected to the Jewish Renewal smicha (ordination) program. I am taking it, at least in part, because I found such great joy in leading our congregation in worship at my B'nai Mitzvah and Sixtieth Birthday celebrations last year, to enhance the skills I employ leading the residents at Lytton Gardens Senior Communities in Shabbat prayer each month, and to prepare me to bring a different ruach (spirit) to services at my shul.

One text I am reading to prepare for the class is The Path of Blessing by Rabbi Marcia Prager. It is a beautiful conversation about the deepest meaning of the six words common to virtually every Jewish prayer--"Barukh Ata Adonay, Eloheynu Melekh Ha'Olam"--commonly translated as "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe." I will not do Reb Marcia the injustice of attempting to paraphrase her work in a few sentences. Suffice it to say that she infuses each word and each letter of each word with meaning that allows one to transcend the limits of our common understanding of the phrase. She unlock the prayer in a way that provides an opening to a deeply spiritual experience .

Why else would I be tapping the keys at 3:34 a.m.?

I read a few pages of her book before I turned the light off for the night. As it sometimes happens I awoke in the middle of the night and lay there wondering about the big issues in my life. It may come as no surprise that in the middle of the night I find everything to be a big issue. This night/morning I was drawn back to a few of Reb Marcia's words as a possible explanation of the resistance I am feeling in my preparation for the Israel Ride.

In the context of opening the word melekh to a richer interpretation than merely "King" she expands its meaning to: "movement of divine creative power through its pathway to fill the receptive soul." The specific words I reflected on when I awoke are these:

... We must be willing to let go of our attachment to negative habits of mind and body, to purify our desires and clarify our intentions. So many of us live with minds and hearts clogged with resentments, old angers and fears. We cling to old habits of thinking and being until those habits begin to define who we are. Yet we fear that without them we would lose ourselves.

Aspects of this statement are familiar to me from several other sources going back to the self-improvement best seller of the sixties--Psycho-Cybernetics by Dr. Maxwell Maltz. He was a cosmetic surgeon who wondered why people still saw themselves the way they were before the physical transformation his surgery provided. It is very hard to develop a new self-image despite evidence of profound change. In my case, I lose a few pounds, even as I gain some muscle, going increasing distances on my bicycle and not only harbor negative thoughts about my ability to perform my stated goal, I find my exercise and dietary habits lapsing almost as if to prove my worst fears.

Perhaps Reb Marcia's words call out to me now because they address not only the mental and physical realm, but a critical spiritual aspect as well. She continues...

The irony is, of course, that only when we let go of what is old is there room to receive the new. We are born to be whole, to be free, to be loved and filled by the presence of God. When we give up the obsessive clutter, we make room to be filled by God. Then we rise out of our petty mochin d'katnut, our small-mindedness, and receive in fullness the mochin d'gadlut, expanded mind.

With heart, soul, and mind open and receptive, we surrender control and ask only to be filled with God. We let go of expectations and find profound insight. We release our judgments and are filled with radiant divine light. We relinquish our attachment to external goals and discover true purpose. We exchange self-satisfied cleverness for the beginnings of wisdom.


Whew! I could sit with those three paragraphs for a very long time. Just three paragraphs out of an entire chapter devoted to the word barukh! Such a huge task to capture the essence of six words--and what it would mean in terms of personal transformation, spiritual growth, mental and physical well being to grok those six words even once when I recite them!

I often talk of the journey I am taking searching for Yeshaya. What would it take for me to live my life at a level of what I like to call my Yeshaya-consciousness. I wonder if this season of preparing or the actual Israel ride will bring me closer. I wonder if DLTI will move me further along. And then I coach myself as I would a friend and suggest that all of these are external events, enriching as they may be, and that I already possess everything required to engage in Yeshaya-consciousness. And then the little Boo Birds on my shoulder say, "Or do I?"

Shoo, Boo Birds!
Barukh Ata Adonay, Eloheynu Melekh Ha'Olam....


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Elul--A Time to Prepare

I was telling the rabbi about the nature of my cycling journey--that the challenges and the learning has been more than merely physical. He responded by asking me to write a piece about it for the September congregational newsletter. The deadline was four weeks away. Nonetheless that night it crossed my mind that the newsletter would be issued during the month of Elul--the Hebrew month that precedes Rosh Hashanah. Immediately I felt a connection between the preparation we are obliged to do for the New Year and the preparation I was doing for the Israel Ride. Even though it was midnight, and I was preparing to go to bed I had to stop first and see where these thoughts would take me. Even though it is still July--the month of Tammuz, that is--I have written the following Elul piece for the shul. Here is your sneak preview!

.........................................................................................................................................

A month to get ready.
That should be ample.
Every year we have this gift,
like football players going to summer training camp before the big Fall kickoff—
only ours is a spiritual kickoff.
You know what happens to the holdouts—the ones who don't show up for camp?
They are in no shape to play the game.


This is an excerpt from my ethical will (viz., www.Yeshaya.net). I included a page on Elul in my ethical will because the month preceding Rosh Hashanah usually has two levels of significance for me. Like all of us I have the opportunity to use Elul to make spiritual preparations for the High Holy Days. I can, and sometimes do take advantage of Elul to reflect on where I have missed the mark, and to seek forgiveness. As ba'al tekiah--the carrier of the shofar blast--I also use this time to prepare myself physically for the high honor and solemn duty of sounding shofar on Rosh Hashanah morning. In very practical terms it is time to get my lip in shape. As a former French horn player that means practicing scales and especially long tones.

This year there is a third focus in my practice of preparation. A few short weeks after the chaggim are complete I will, God willing, sound shofar again--this time in the Old City of Jerusalem to mark the commencement of a 300-mile bicycle ride in which I will be among over 100 cyclists wending our way to Ashkelon, then through the Negev to our ultimate destination, Eilat, to raise awareness and money to save the endangered environment of the Negev.

I have been preparing my heart, my soul, and most assuredly all my might since April for this journey. I have felt the significance of the Israel Ride and my preparations grow steadily since I took on this challenge. I have very high expectations, based on all I have heard from previous riders--our own Greg Sterling among them--that this will be more than an exotic tour. It will be a mission that will have lasting significance to me personally even as I make an important contribution to a dialog among Christians, Moslems, and Jews whose objective is not only to protect and preserve the Negev, but to enhance the environment for peace among the peoples of Eretz Yisrael.

I feel exceedingly blessed to have so much to look forward to. I experience an even greater blessing by turning the anticipation of the ride and the High Holy Days into actions that enrich the present as well as the future.

I recently received a teaching that said that even greater than to perform a mitzvah is to inspire and motivate others to perform mitzvot. In that spirit I ask that you visit www.Yeshaya.net. I hope you will be inspired to learn more about ethical wills and to create one of your own. While you are there, please click on my Israel Ride link and make a donation to be shared by two truly outstanding organizations--Hazon (www.hazon.org) and the Arava Institute (www.arava.org). Most of all, use the remaining days of the waning year to go to "training camp!" Once again, Naomi Palmer is leading an Elul workshop for the shul, this year using the inspiring text Forty Days of Transformation by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins.

Finally, I pray that we all have a meaningful and productive Elul that prepares us for teshuva, for a year of growth, a year of health, and a year in which we make great strides in repairing the world.

b'shalom
Yeshaya