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Floods of Rain, Floods of Tears

Today, it rained in Madison. I mean rained. Also today the bodies of three teenagers – Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Sha’ar, and Naftali Frenkel – we’re found half submerged in a field near Hebron. One of them, Frankel, was also an American.

As I sat in traffic, watching the water flood the streets and the gutters, I couldn’t help but think about the situation. I try to distance myself from the sadder side of politics, but I couldn’t get this out of mind.

How could this happen? Who did it and where are they? Why isn’t it on the news here in America? What if things were different?

Sone people say that tremping, or hitch hiking, is what killed the boys. No, a person or people killed the boys. So many people that I know in the West Bank rely on hitch hiking to get into Jerusalem due to limited bus service; it’s something that you wouldn’t let your kids do in America, but in Israel, people are taught to trust strangers and help one another.

Then there is the issue of Palestinian deaths due to this. I don’t know the whole story there, but I do know that there were people among their ranks who knew information, including the identities and whereabouts of the suspected murders. By refusing to divulge such information, it makes them accessories to the crime. Killing people is wrong, but when there is a refusal to cooperate with authority, that doesn’t solve anything, and at least here in America that’s not something taken lightly. Not to mention that their Hamas comrades were celebrating the murders.

Next, my thoughts turned to America, and Americans abroad. One of the boys was American, but no one made a statement about him, and no American troops or diplomats were instructed to take action. I have so many American friends living abroad – not just in Israel, but also in places like India, China, and Togo. What if it were one of them? I was once an American living abroad…what if the victim were me? Who would come to my defense?

Another thing: something tells me that if the American were a teenage girl instead of a boy, news outlets would have been all over it like Jessica Lynch. What if it had been Natalie Frenkel, good white Jewish girl from Brooklyn, instead of Naftali Frenkel?

This turn of events causes so much uncertainty in my life and the lives of others. But if one thing is certain, it’s this. No question will change anything, and no answer will bring these three back to life.

There are few times in my life when I’ve been really afraid for my life and my long term future. My parents had JFK and the Cuban missile crisis. I had September 11th, the anthrax scare, the number 22 bus bombing, rising antisemitism in Europe, campus shootings, but then this happened.

If I ever go abroad for research or to live, will I truly be alone? Will I be swept out to sea like so much rain down Johnson Street?

4

Lemonade and Jelly Beans Day

Every once-in-a-while, I have a day that I call Lemonade and Jelly Beans Day.

And today was one of those days.

A Lemonade and Jelly Beans Day is not a good day, a bad day, or a neutral day. It’s one of those days that starts out with some rottenness, is usually dreary, and something good happens, but it’s not enough to turn the day around. Well, the good thing that happened to me today will have some long-lasting effects, but I’ll talk about those another time.

The provenance of Lemonade and Jelly Beans Day occurred in October 2009 in Jerusalem, Israel. I can’t exactly remember what set me off, but I was still living in the WUJS apartment so it couldn’t have been a good day, period. I remember that it was raining, which is normally a bummer, but makes everyone calm and happy in drought-stricken Israel, and softens the rougher edges of the world. It’s more of an act of purification than anything else. Plus, it makes everything beautiful. That day, I slept in, and when I woke up, my heart was sinking in my chest, heavy like a bag of sand. Which, ironically, was heavier knowing that it would have to face the rain. I wasn’t tired, hungry, or motivated to do anything. And then a feeling crept up on me.

I needed lemonade and jelly beans.

Right now.

Even though those are two foods I don’t enjoy on a regular basis, I strolled through the rain down to the makolet, which, fortunately for me, had some Minute Maid bottled lemonade and Jelly Belly Sours. Double yes, went my brain. Back at home, I settled back into my bed, my computer in front of me, and cracked open the drink. The lemony goodness washed down my throat, and when I bit into each jelly bean, the sour tang tickled my taste buds, validating all the sour thoughts and feelings that were going through me, and typed “it’s a lemonade and jelly beans type of day.”

Though I didn’t end up getting lemonade and jelly beans today, I certainly felt a bit deflated as I went about my daily routine, even passing up gym time to go home and hit the studying, hard, which was kind of good, I guess, since it got me to get some of my stuff done.

Each time I have one of these days, some other odd compulsion comes out, and for some reason, today, it was 90s one-hit-wonder group Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On” doubling as the soundtrack. There’s just something about Wendy, Chynna, and Carnie singing lyrics like “I know this pain/Why do lock yourself up in these chains?/No one can change your life except for you/Don’t ever let anyone step all over you/Just open your heart and your mind/Is it really fair to feel this way inside?” It’s like a damp dishcloth for your soul, complete with a wacky bass line and banal, inoffensive lyrics that essentially talk about nothing. Sometimes it’s a horrible song, sometimes it’s my jam, but today, it’s like my special friend, or guardian angel, if you believe in that sort of thing.

Everyone has a lemonade and jelly beans day once in a while, where you’re not at your best, and that’s okay. Again, it’s not happy, but it’s not necessarily sad – more like subtle, subdued, low-key, teetering between anxiety and calm.

I feel a little better now.

1

Blue Sunday

This isn’t going to be a fun or happy post, even though I did, for the most part, have a nice day and spent it with some really good friends. I know I should probably be reading for class or writing for class or something right now, but the thoughts are in my mind and I want them to be in my blog. This post may disappear without warning. Okay, now I’m just being supercilious, so here it goes.

I have a confession to make.

I have been a brother of APO since 2006. It’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life. Since then, I have been active in 3 chapters and am now working with one in an advisory role. I have traveled to Louisville and Boston for national convention, and I have made friends across the country and around the world. I have done hundreds of hours of service, attended crazy and fun fellowship events, created and carried out service projects/fellowships of my own, have collected two awards and so, so many memories.

Most of them are good, but some of them are bad.

Here’s one of the bad ones.

During my final semester as an undergraduate, I was abused by a brother.

It was not physical or sexual in any way, and since I was not a pledge, it was not technically hazing. But I was still hurt, mentally and emotionally, and I should have seen it coming based on something that happened at a meeting in an earlier semester. We were planning to hold a ritual on a Saturday night, but due to a pledge’s conflicting schedule, we moved it earlier in the week to Thursday so all the pledges could attend. Everyone else in the chapter was on board…except me. I had won a playwriting competition in Baltimore, and the show was set to open that Friday. Since I wouldn’t be able to attend the show on a Friday night, I planned on flying down Thursday afternoon, seeing final dress rehearsal that night, and getting back to Amherst on Friday morning to make it to my Friday afternoon class. When I brought this up at the meeting (which I had mentioned at the past two meetings, at least), I knew that I would probably be overruled. Unsurprisingly, I was, but not before a brother yelled out, “Well, you’re not important.” That kinda hurt, but I brushed it off as just something that came out at the wrong place at the wrong time, and in the wrong tone of voice.

In my final semester, this brother started opening up to me, or so I thought. She would call to see how I was doing, she would invite me to eat lunch with her, and was generally nice to me.

I really thought she’d changed.

I had been lulled into a false sense of security.

Over the next few weeks, things got worse. She began to be “honest” with me, and told me about what she perceived as flaws in my character, some of which I agreed with and some of which I didn’t agree with. When pledging started, she emailed me, telling me that she heard that I said something inappropriate to a female pledge. When she mentioned the name, I was taken aback: I had barely interacted with this pledge. She also said to stay away from her, and not to apologize, because that would make things worse, and warned me that our president knew and was watching me, so don’t talk about it. Puzzled about what I did or when, I just kept to myself, and since nobody ever brought it up, I assumed it had either a) fizzled out or b) been taken care of. I also avoided this pledge, making an excuse to leave whenever she was around and deliberately not talking to her, for fear of making anything worse.

That semester was also the beginning of a service project that I created with the help of the Chabad House at Amherst, Loaves for Love, a program involving brothers coming to bake challah on a Thursday night, taking some home, and taking the rest to a long-term care facility or a nursing home in nearby Hadley. I was unsure of the project at first, fearing that people would not like it. The first time, only six brothers showed up, but they had so much fun not only baking but learning the Jewish traditions behind the taking of Challah from the dough, different braiding patterns, listening to folk tales told by the rabbi’s wife while the challah was baking, decorating the challah with sesame and poppy seeds when it came out of the oven warm and fresh, playing with the children of the house, and of course, eating challah – for some of them, it was their first – and taking some home to enjoy later. The five other brothers who attended had such a great time that they told the other brothers, and for the remainder of the semester, everyone jumped at the opportunity to do Loaves for Love, and together with Chabad we made hundreds of challah rolls and heard so many stories that made us all feel good inside. Oh, and the warm bread helped too.

Then, I received an email from you-know-who. Very bluntly, she accused me of pushing a religious agenda on the brothers and pledges. As one of the few brothers to never cross the threshold of the Chabad House, I’m not sure how or why she claimed that about the project, but she used the magic “they,” so I became very nervous at future Loaves for Love events, especially around pledges. I was kind of freaked out. More than freaked out, I was terrified. The thought of me pushing religion on anyone, as a member of a religion that forbids proselytizing of any kind, was unacceptable. I continued planning and facilitating events, passing the project down to my little, but each time I went, I was petrified from the moment I rolled up my sleeves to the moment the last challah roll was bagged. But I could never let it show, because I was trying to be brave, be strong, and be a leader.

Things progressively got worse. This brother confronted me directly after meetings. After one meeting, when I refused to speak with her, she followed me around the room as I talked to other brothers, stalking me silently, waiting for me to break a conversation so she could slip herself in. When she made an attempt to butt in or start a conversation with me, I just said, “I don’t want to talk to you right now, we’ll talk later.” I successfully managed to avoid her that night, bundling myself inside my coat and briskly walking out of the room, out of the student union, and out of her clutches.

I thought I had made myself clear to her, and to the rest of the chapter, that I did not want to talk to her. I guess she felt embarrassed when I shut her down after the meeting, because what came next almost pushed me over an edge and made me want to quit entirely.

Not long after, I received an email from her. I opened it, knowing I’d be horrified, but this email left me gasping for breath. I have blocked most of it out of my memory, but not only did it bring up the pledge thing and the religion thing, it also included, well…hate speech is the best way to describe it. It was cruel, mean, and nasty. It was sexual in nature, but her usage of words was clever enough to mask her true feelings (claiming, again, it was the chapter’s feelings) that it made my eyes water and my blood drain from my face.

What happened next?

Something I’m proud of, and something I’m not so proud of.

I’m proud of the fact that I a) did not respond or retaliate, b) did not confront her publicly or privately, c) did not bring it up at chapter meeting.

I’m not proud that I a) did not share my feelings with any brothers, and b) deleted the email, hoping that no one would ever read it, ever again.

I still regret those two decisions.

Even though this was between me and her, I felt stripped of any humanity or self-esteem I had left. I was emotionally wrecked. Between plugging away at academics and being scared at the prospect of graduation, I looked to APO for service and friendship, and it had let me down. I still went to meetings, but finished my requirements quietly and then stepped away from the chapter for the remaining weeks of the semester, putting all my focus on my schoolwork.

Before the semester ended, however, I decided that I wanted to graduate from school and APO with my head held high. I had done a lot of service that semester, and I thought I’d helped start a good project. An advisor showed up at a meeting one day, someone who was relatively new to the chapter, and mentioned that she’d be available to talk to anyone, giving out her cell number and email address. I took advantage of that, and called her immediately, setting up a lunch date away from campus to talk about things. I didn’t tell her everything, but what I told her confirmed similar things she’d heard about this brother. She advised me not to listen to that brother anymore, and that her magic “they” was, in fact, nobody at all. Nobody! She continued by saying that she hadn’t heard any complaints about me from anyone else in the chapter. After that lunch, I felt so much better. I didn’t pursue anything further, even though I could have and should have. I just didn’t want any additional drama.

Whenever you become the receiving end of any abusive words or actions in your fraternity, sorority, or any organization, tell someone.

Don’t do what I did and suffer in silence; you are important and so is your voice.

Never accept hearsay.

Be true to who you are and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

You are important and you deserve to be treated with respect; if you are being treated otherwise, that person is not your friend.

Stand up for yourself and inspire others.

And most importantly, SAY SOMETHING. And not to yourself, to SOMEONE ELSE. ASK. FOR. HELP.

But this story does have a happy ending – sort of. Right before banquet, the pledge who I’d been avoiding approached me to interview me for her Pledge Book. I was tense, but I answered her questions through a poker face. At the end of the interview, I told her that I was sorry for whatever I did or said to hurt her in any way.

Her response: “I’m not mad at you…who told you that?”

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Lights

So I find myself on the last night of Hanukkah. The festival of lights, the time of the miracles.

This past week has been a whirlwind – travel, drama, grad school, drama, emotions, and drama.

But today…

  • I presented my poster this morning.
  • I read my paper as well.
  • I got my car fixed, and even at a discount for making me wait.
  • I got to rehearsal on time.
  • I got through rehearsal, no script, no huge mistakes.
  • I got to spend the last moments of the last night of Hanukkah watching nine beautiful flames dance to the beat of Ellie Goulding’s “Lights.”

It’s the miracle of Hanukkah.

“calling, calling, calling me home…”

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Oversaid Fines

Here’s a good one.

There is a three-word phrase that you probably say just about every day of your life, whether it’s to yourself or to someone else. It’s not “I love you,” and it’s not “f my life” but to me, it’s just as overstated and meaningless.

What do you typically say to a good friend who is:

  • Struggling with school?
  • Nervous about searching for employment?
  • Scared of dying alone?
  • About to embark on a big trip?
  • Having wedding-day jitters?
  • Undergoing stage fright right before the show’s opening?
  • Has been trying and trying and trying but failing?
  • Has lost faith in himself?
  • Has lost faith in everything?

If you’re like most of the world, the response in your head at this point is something like:

“You’ll be fine.”

BUT WILL I BE?

It seems to be the catch-all answer these days.

I first noticed it being used more frequently last year in Houston, when struggling to complete my coursework and my master’s thesis. My professors used it as a clap-on-the-shoulder, “I have to do something else but I want to end this conversation on a positive note even though it may or may not be true.” My parents have used it in pretty much every conversation about anything I’ve been nervous about over the past year, from moving to a new apartment in a new city, attending a new school, and eating yogurt after its expiration date. I’ve heard it from friends, family members, doctors, teachers, and even acquaintances. Over the past few days, I’ve heard it said to me about a hundred times and have even resorted to using it myself.

But what does it mean? What does “fine” actually mean? Where’s the context?

“Fine” can mean so many different things. It can be used as a brief explanation to someone that you aren’t dying, it can be used to express happiness, it can be used to express disinterest. It can also be used ironically, to show disgust or annoyance. It’s one of those words that if you say it too many times, it loses all meaning. “Fine” can mean physically healthy, emotionally healthy, mentally healthy, safe, having money, or any combination of the above. Once upon a time, saying you’re “fine” meant that everything was going 100% smoothly and well in your life, but now, even if everything is completely out of whack, you can just say it and no one will suspect a thing since our sensibilities can no longer handle transparency anymore.

Here’s the way I see it…

My dad has a client who happens to be a very high-strung woman in her 70s. Let’s call her Doris. Doris is a wife, mother, and grandmother, with a college education, an incredible high-profile career, and so many friends that she can’t fit them all into her apartment for get-togethers. She’s the exact opposite of a cat lady – respected, honored, and leads an active social and professional life that would be envied by most. Plus, she’s friendly, fashionable, and charming. Whenever Doris and my dad talk, she’s usually fretting about something money-related, like her paycheck (from her contracts from which she works, which is hit-and-miss but lucrative when she’s working), her social security (which she hasn’t yet started claiming) or her will (and despite a physical disability, she’s in great shape for her age). And it’s always the same tone with her – at level 10. From the way she talks and how she describes herself, you’d think she’d be a step away from being evicted and that her next meal might come from a dumpster behind a Taco Bell. I, myself, am not privy to details about Doris’ financial situation; needless to say, I think that despite her paranoia she’s got a lot of bases covered to sustain emotionally, physically, and financially for the rest of her life. I don’t know if she chooses to see herself that way, or if she actually does, but either way, her self-perception is completely untrue. And every time my dad talks to her (and about her, outside the office) he says that she’ll be fine. 

That I can go for. That’s what being fine means to me – she’s already lived a full and happy life and continues to live it even as I type this entry when I should be studying. She has the money she needs, friends and family who love her, all her mental and almost all her physical faculties, and finds new things to love every day.

Basically, I dream of having a life like that.

However…that’s not the case with me. I’m a constant worrier, yes, and I do over-analyze a lot, but let’s get real here. I struggle every day in a different way. Most of the time, I am not fine. Big or small, and whether I know it or not, I feel like there’s something that’s always not right. Will I be fine in my life? With God’s blessing and no major catastrophes, yes. Will I be fine this minute? No, not necessarily. I am safe, I’m not even unhappy, yet there’s a falling-quicksand sensation in my brain that not everything is all right.

Will I be fine?

You don’t know. I don’t know. I hope so.

In the future, when someone says then to me, I’ll continue to accept it, given the large amount of possible subtext lying beneath the phrase. As to whether I’ll believe it or not, that depends on how I’m feeling that day. The fact of the matter: sometimes it’s hard to believe it, it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility. Sometimes it helps to hear, but sometimes it doesn’t. Let your actions speak louder than your words, but don’t let your words slide down.

This was a particularly long and heavy post, so here’s an audiovisual representation of how I usually feel when you say this to me, with a special thanks to Whitney Houston:

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A Rose Is Still A Rose

This past week has been pretty brutal. Some of it caused by me, some by others…well, mostly me. Won’t go into more detail but suffice it to say that due to circumstances, I got very little done.

I usually write about other things in this space. But today I want to write about me. Because I feel that that person needs some serious lovin’.

Over the last several years (well, really, most of my post-high school life), I’ve been actively working on myself in one way or another, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. I’ve gone to psychologists, psychiatrists, and art therapists. I’ve had an MRI and an EKG. I’ve attended classes; I’ve read books and articles. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn’t. And inevitably, just when I’ve got it all figured out, something comes tumbling down.

Lately a lot of things have been tumbling down. I’ve been asking myself the big questions, and I’m lonelier than ever. I’ve been pretty good at developing and using coping mechanisms, but it seems like just about every day I face some sort of struggle. When I find there’s something wrong, I try to make it better. But it’s just really hard when solitude kicks in, because that ignites it all. The loneliness. The fear. The paranoia.

Something’s wrong with this picture, and I’m doing it all wrong.

My private college counselor back in Maryland told me that a better way to approach myself is to, instead of looking at what’s wrong about myself, look at what’s right about myself, and use those qualities to build myself up from the bottom rather than knocking myself down from the top.

Most of the time, I like myself. I’m a nice person, or at least I actively try to be, every day. I am helpful and kind. I am loyal, trustworthy, and understanding. I’m a giver, not a taker. I care about people. I am a good friend. If you are my friend, I love you to no end. I go out of my way to help others. I try to keep things light and positive, and help make others feel good about themselves. I rejoice in the fact that I’m alive and I can enjoy such wonderful things every day, some of which being other people who are with me on this planet Earth that I can interact with and can interact with me. I’m always up for a challenge. I’m also always up for lunch, dinner, dessert, coffee, or alcohol in any way, shape, or form. I used to think I was an introvert, but I think that I’m actually an extrovert in disguise: I can strike up a conversation with anyone, anywhere, anytime. I love to smile and make people laugh. Overall, I’m a good thing to have in my life and if you’re lucky enough to know me personally, then in yours too.

Like a flower, I wake up every morning and put my face towards the sun. I am me. I carry that energy with me all day, and even when I come home at night, even when I’m about to go to bed, I’m still me.

Rose

“’cause a rose is still a rose/baby girl, you’re still a flower/he can’t lead you and then take you/make you and then break you/darlin’ you hold the power.” – Lauryn Hill, “A Rose Is Still A Rose”

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Failure Pie

Today was just one of those days. Things just didn’t go my way. And the worst part of it is, it’s left me tired but not sleepy.

(I just waded through reading something that was unbearably dense, so bear with me.)

It started off pretty well, the sun was shining, and that was about it. I ran to class, got there late, and spent the next almost-two-hours wishing that I were elsewhere. Class ends, and I run home to finish and print a paper, make some soup that I eventually dump down my throat as I go back out the door, and was late for my next meeting, which wasn’t horrible, but left me feeling pretty non-confident about myself. I was on time for the next class (yay) but it was my afternoon three-hour class, and I was sitting there wishing that I was elsewhere. By the end of hour two I’m usually pretty checked out. Then I had about a half-hour to shove a half-sandwich down my throat (Throat to Me: Don’t push it.) and then it was time for rehearsal, which was probably some of the worst hours of my day, then home, where I did some stuff, but mostly felt the need (and still do) to dick around and not do work (which is a bad idea) and stretch my brain to think of more stuff to type in this entry, and tell myself I’ll be in bed by 12:30 only for time to be like “surprise! you bummed around the apartment doing nothing and now it’s 3 AM, or 2:30 if you’re lucky!” And on top of that, now I feel incredibly lonely in this apartment that, while lovely, still doesn’t feel like home with the piles of mess in different places, the white hospital-room walls that nothing in the world will adhere to, and the fact that I still don’t know where half of my stuff is at any given time, yet the time I’d spend looking for a new place is spent in class, running from place to place, and – you guessed it – doing nothing constructive at all. It’s a cycle that kind of needs to end, and fast, because I’m beginning to feel like I’m going through the motions, springing back and forth on a rubber-band-slingshot between my apartment and the Vilas building with a few other stops in between sometimes that take more time than they probably should.

Oh, and my shoulders hurt from exercising yesterday. Um…good for the bones, I guess? Bleh. I don’t know.

What I do know today:

  • I’m so lonely when alone, but when in class, most of the time I just want to get out of there.
  • Saying “you’ll be fine” to me right now would be like…I think I’ll go there in a future entry.
  • The little things accumulate and escalate.
  • Budgeting more travel time is never a bad idea.
  • My computer’s fan is embarrassingly loud.
  • I’m always doing stuff, but I would never call myself “busy.” I don’t know about that. Again, more in a future entry.
  • I should probably go back and read through my posts and follow through on some of those future-entry topics.

All those charts were right, about grad school being a six-slice pie (school, social, sleep, exercise, diet, and extracurriculars, or something like that) when they say “pick four and fail at them all.”

In that case, I have about seven pies worth of failure.

And I’m not even really doing any of those things right now.

…so I guess I just proved the chart right.