the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Tag: death

Steve Jobs, My Father, and Yom Kippur

Steve Jobs, the legendary co-founder of Apple passed away this week, and the internet exploded with admirers reflecting on how his vision impacted their lives.

Some talked about their first Mac, iPod, or iPhone, and how it transformed the way they communicated or listened to music.

Others sought meaning in Jobs’ passing, musing on death, accomplishment, originality, and vision. I poked a little fun at this hero worship on Twitter, writing:

“There is something odd seeing so many quotes about “being original” and “not living the life of others” being re-tweeted 1000x on Twitter.”

One short post about Jobs struck a nerve with me, written by a blogging friend, “Stay at Home Babe,” and titled “Why I Would Want to Die Young.”

I’ve already heard so much talk about how sad it is that Steve Jobs died at such a young age. I won’t argue with the sentiment, but it certainly got me thinking.

I don’t necessarily want to live until I’m as old as humanly possible. I don’t think I have to hang on until my hips are both replaced and I’m on a hundred medications and my brain has turned to mush.

I want to live a life worth admiring. In whatever capacity that is, for however long that is. I don’t want to waste it. I don’t want to find myself unexpectedly on my death bed, knowing that I didn’t do what I wanted or did less than the best I could with the time I had.

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It is customary during the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for Jews to visit family members at the cemetery. My mother and I took the Long Island Railroad to visit the final resting place of my father at a Jewish cemetery in Nassau County.

It was two days before the death of Steve Jobs in California.

It was nice visiting my father on a crisp fall day. I was wearing a red sweatshirt. When I first saw my father’s tombstone I laughed, because as long-time readers of this blog might remember, I “crowdsourced” the epitaph on his stone after he passed away in 2005, until we collectively convinced my mother to include his favorite saying, “Be of Good Cheer” on the stone. My father might go down in history as the first person to have the saying on his tombstone voted upon by the Internet.

Another Jewish custom is to place a stone on the top of the tombstone; it signifies that “you were there.” I picked out two shapely and clean gray stones from the gravel road, and my mother and I placed them on top of the marble slat that marked my father’s final resting place.

++++

I think about my father. I wonder about the dreams and goals that he had as a younger man. Did he do what he wanted? Did he do less than the best he did with the time he had on Earth?

I have no idea.

He worked as a physical therapist at a New York City hospital. He liked his job, but he complained about it during dinner time, especially about the internal politics of a city-run hospital. I think he might have preferred a cushier job at a private hospital, although he probably had more of an impact on the lives of the less-privileged by working at Queens General Hospital.

I assume that “Stay at Home Babe” was being honest in her views about dying young, but I suspect that she is in her late twenties, so she feels that she has plenty of time to accomplish everything in her iPhone scheduler. I think once you reach 35, you are pretty happy if you reached 1/3 of the goals you had in college.

Should we just kill ourselves if we don’t become multi-milionaires by 40?

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It is easy to read the obituary of Steve Jobs and see it as a referendum on individuality, focus, and a life-well lived, but I think it is a mistake to think that success in life involves having a specific goal in mind and reaching it. Under that criteria, most of us end up miserable failures. The reality is that our real impact on others is not always easily noticed, or even appreciated. Not every worthwhile life is built upon achieving personal goals. We are all interrelated in so many different ways, that you can never be sure how your actions are affecting others.

On paper, my father will never match the accomplishments of Steve Jobs. Perhaps he didn’t achieve exactly what he wanted in life. But he had an impact on me. And his family. On his patients. In the way that he treated his friends and neighbors.

In social media, we speak a lot about influence. We consider someone with many followers as “influential.” But I have heard stories of strangers talking down someone on Twitter from committing suicide that night. No one remembers the names of those people. But that is real influence!

On Yom Kippur, in temple, a special prayer is added to the Shemoneh Esrei (Amidah), in which the community confesses their sins. All the sins are confessed in the plural (we have done this, we have done that), emphasizing communal responsibility for sinning. So even if you haven’t murdered anyone this year, you still say “We have murdered.”

When I was younger, I used to think this Yom Kippur tradition was bizarre and unfair, but now I appreciate the sentiment. The point is not to diminish personal responsibility, but to remind ourselves that human sins are frequently a by-product of the social bond gone sour. We are all at fault.

But this communal responsibility also has a positive side. We can all take pride when things turn out well.

Did you read Steve Jobs’ obituary? Did you come away thinking only about Steve Jobs? Read the obituary again, this time focusing on the community who helped mold him.

Steve Jobs was adopted:

Steven Paul Jobs was born in San Francisco on Feb. 24, 1955, and surrendered for adoption by his biological parents, Joanne Carole Schieble and Abdulfattah Jandali, a graduate student from Syria who became a political science professor. He was adopted by Paul and Clara Jobs.

Steve Jobs was mentored by a nameless neighbor:

Mr. Jobs developed an early interest in electronics. He was mentored by a neighbor, an electronics hobbyist, who built Heathkit do-it-yourself electronics projects.

Steve Wozniak’s mother brings her son and Steve Jobs together as business partners.

The spark that ignited their partnership was provided by Mr. Wozniak’s mother. Mr. Wozniak had graduated from high school and enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, when she sent him an article from the October 1971 issue of Esquire magazine. The article, “Secrets of the Little Blue Box,” by Ron Rosenbaum, detailed an underground hobbyist culture of young men known as phone phreaks who were illicitly exploring the nation’s phone system.

A mysterious hacker teaches Steve Jobs his tricks.

Captain Crunch was John Draper, a former Air Force electronic technician, and finding him took several weeks. Learning that the two young hobbyists were searching for him, Mr. Draper had arranged to come to Mr. Wozniak’s Berkeley dormitory room.

An Intel executive backs Apple with $250,000.

In early 1976, he and Mr. Wozniak, using their own money, began Apple with an initial investment of $1,300; they later gained the backing of a former Intel executive, A. C. Markkula, who lent them $250,000.

Did any of these individuals achieve their own personal goals? We don’t know. But there is reason to believe that without these people crossing the paths of Steve Jobs, that he wouldn’t have achieved HIS goals. Again, we don’t know for sure, but would you now want to tell that dorky hobbyist neighbor who mentored Steve Jobs that he would have been better off dead since he didn’t achieve his goal of building a spaceship for NASA? You never know when your action can have an earth-shattering effect on another. It is quite possible that a friendly hello in a supermarket can change the life of the other person. You just don’t know.

Not everything is about YOUR goals.

My father was a loved man. He didn’t make that much money. I’m sure he wished he did better financially. He didn’t get any obituaries written about him in the newspaper. But I know he helped many people with disabilities to walk, and perhaps they went on to do great things spurred on by the care that they received from my father.

I am super-impressed by the vision of Steve Jobs and what he achieved in his short life. But I am just as impressed with someone who lives life, perhaps NOT achieving every single one of their dreams, but loves life itself, and sees it as special. Being kind to others may not get you a mention in the New York Times, but it is a quality that is as essential to the well-being of the community as an iPad. And that it something I try to remember as I live my own life. Thanks, Dad, for teaching me that lesson.

Stuff

The hardest part of packing up my in-law’s apartment is “the stuff.”  We always hear that “stuff” — material objects — is meaningless.  Yesterday, on Oprah, there was discussion about women who give up the trappings of the real world to become nuns.  They were happy to trade in their “stuff” for a meaningful relationship with Jesus.

I wish I could tell you that my “stuff” means nothing, but I’m not a nun, or a Buddhist. My “stuff” speaks to me.  They are the props to the stories of my life.  I have saved baseball cards, stamps, matchboxes from my honeymoon, sentimental objects that would have no meaning to you at all, but are more important to me than my $30,000 car.  I realize that the energy of this stuff is really in my head, my memories, and that these objects are inherently meaningless on their own, but life would be a lesser place if we didn’t create myths about our “stuff,” from national flags to Bibles to the old toys in Toy Story.

I made three piles of Vartan and Fanya’s stuff — to throw out, to give to Goodwill, and to take home.  But no one left behind a directory, or a glossary, telling me which object was important.  How is anyone supposed to know the stories behind the “stuff?”  I know  enough from watching Antique Roadshow on PBS to take the crystal vase home, but what about the cheapo Made-in-Japan glass bird sitting on the nightstand?  Was it a gift?  A shared moment between husband and wife?  A impulse buy during a vacation?  Did it have any specific meaning?  Why was it sitting so close to the bed?  Was it the object itself that was special or the image of the bird flying?  Was it an expression of Fanya’s need to escape something or somewhere?  To recapture youth?  Was in Vartan’s love for birds?  A childhood memory of the birds of Russia?

I just don’t know.   I put the bird in the pile for Goodwill.  Perhaps someone new, a young woman perhaps, shopping in Goodwill with her friends, will find meaning in it, buy it, and place it on her nightstand.  It will then be her “stuff.”

I found a lot of photos.    Here’s one of Sophia from when she was in school.  For some reason, it made me chuckle.

I found some of Vartan’s old medical equipment.

By the second day, I was becoming more ruthless in what I was giving away.   I decided that it was better that someone uses the items rather than it sitting in our garage.

I donated most of Vartan’s books.   I kept his copy of War and Peace.  It was a gift from one of his patients.  Sophia told me that doctors in the Soviet Union didn’t make any more money than day laborers, so many took bribes.  Vartan refused to take bribes, but he did accept books as gifts.

Inside the book was this inscription.

Sophia translated it for me.

Dear Doctor Vartan Ambartzumovich,

Thank you for so expertly performing surgery on our beloved mother. We hope that thanks to your light hand, our mom’s life shall be extended. We’re wishing you solid health and much success in your noble daily work.

Igor Matyushin, Sergey Matyushin, Tatyana Matyushina.
City of Odessa. 06.02.1976

Now, this was good “stuff” to take home.

The Closing of the Eyes

This is what I was doing when Sophia’s mother passed away a few weeks ago.

I was waiting for my yearly exam at the eye doctor on Robertson Blvd.  I was hoping I didn’t need another prescription, because my last pair of “progressive lenses” cost me something like $600 bucks.   My eyesight is THAT bad.  Nearsighted and Farsighted.

I was reading an old Vanity Fair in Doctor Ko’s waiting room when the phone rang.  It was Sophia, hysterical, saying that “something is going wrong” at her mother’s house.  The ambulance was there.  I needed to go there immediately.  I was closer than Sophia, who was still in Redondo Beach.

Just then, the receptionist called me for my appointment.  I told her that I had to leave.  A family emergency.  She grumbled unsympathetically, as if she had heard this excuse a hundred times before.

“I will have to charge you a $35 co-payment because you need to cancel three days before blah blah.”

“Fine,” I said.

The next hurdle was the underground parking garage.  I handed my parking stub to the attendant in her cubicle.

“Eight dollars,” she announced.  A Spanish soap opera was playing on a 13″ TV next to the cash register.

I handed her my Visa.

“Cash only,” she said, unimpressed.  I looked inside my wallet.  I only had three dollars cash.

“Can I come back later?”

“No.  There’s an ATM machine in the lobby.”

“I need to go.   It’s an emergency.”

I was getting desperate.

“Sure.  Sure.  Emergency.  I hear that ALL the time.”

It was like the story of the boy who cried wolf, but I was stuck paying for the sins of others.  I never lie about emergencies.

“It IS an emergency.  My mother-in-law is sick.”

The phone rang.  Sophia was sobbing.  The attendant let me go.

It was surreal when I arrived at the home of Sophia’s parents.  My FIL was sick in the bedroom, unaware of what was going on.   My MIL was in the living room, a white sheet covering her body.  The aide was running back and forth between the two rooms, screaming.  Emergency workers and the police were on walkie-talkies.  Noisy Russian neighbors were pacing in the hallway of the apartment building.

Sophia arrived, lifted the sheet, and broke down.  Her mother’s eyes were still open.

I closed Fanya’s eyes.  There was nothing else for her to see in this world.  She had gone to another place.

I was scared of touching her eyes, of the gaze of someone who had just passed, as if it was dangerous to me in some ancient superstitious manner, even though I was just sitting at the kitchen table with this exact same person the day earlier, eating borscht, and taking the finished bowl from her warm hands.

Today I received the bill for the eye exam that I never had.  But I don’t need an optometrist to tell me that, since that tragic day, I somehow see things differently.

Damn You

This was a long week in real life.  It was also a long week ON the internet. 

I joined Stumbleupon, then inadvertently sent invites to everyone on my Yahoo email list.  The evil application tricked me with their checked “tell your friends!” box as the default choice, rather then the logical unchecked one.   I sent glowing testimonies to 300 people, including a few top producers in Hollywood who have now banned me from Burbank.  One blogger who I haven’t interacted with in two years sent me an angry note.  A nice woman from Idaho was confused about “why I loved Stumbleupon so much.”  Several of you actually joined Stumbleupon because I asked you to!  I felt like a total ass. 

Damn you, Stumbleupon!

A few days ago, I went on Twitter and talked about some minor personal issue with Sophia.  I figured that it was safe because Sophia never goes on this application.   BUT — I didn’t realize that the new Yahoo Messenger 9 Beta has some “cool” new addition, where unless you shut it off, “broadcasts” other applications — such at Twitter — right onto Yahoo Messenger.   So much for being an early adopter.   As I chatted in Twitter, Sophia was sitting in Redondo Beach reading each of my tweets in real time!   She was not happy.

Damn you, Yahoo!

At 3AM this morning, I posted a poorly written post.  My clever idea was to talk about sex under the guise of writing about “passion” in politics.   Note to self:  Do not write posts at 3AM.   When I woke up, I noticed that the first five comments were all about the election rather the real point of the post —  getting laid! — so I just deleted the creative failure. 

Damn you, libido!

My uncle, Milton, was buried on Wednesday, in the spot in the cemetery next to my father.   When looking at my father’s tombstone, I was reminde that my father also passed away in September, in 2005, not long after I started this blog.   Milton was my father’s younger brother.   He was cremated in SF and brought here on a flight by his longtime female companion and my cousin.   It is unusual for Jews to be cremated, so I had never seen something like this before.   I have to admit, that despite the sadness of the event, there was some macabre humor involving the ashes.

Neil:  “Can I carry something for you?”

Female Companion:  (handing me a small shopping bag with a box inside)  “You can hold your uncle.”

I think my uncle would appreciate the humor.

There are some complicated family stories involving him that I would like to tell some day, but for now, let me just say that he was a cool and loving man.  He was buried with his favorite hat and a copy of Sports Illustrated. 

I also learned that he read my blog, and liked the sexy posts.  I wish I could talk to him more about this. 

Damn you, Time, which waits for no one!

After I deleted my post this morning, I slept (that’s what happens when you write posts at 3AM).  When I woke up, I felt guilty for not publishing anything today.  I took a walk downstairs.  It was raining, but I forgot my umbrella.  I was unshaven, my chin with graying stubble.  There was only one place to go — across the street to McDonald’s.

Yes, THAT McDonald’s.  I was going to end the week the same way I began it – by going to my infamously bad local franchise for a cup of coffee.  For some reasons, I seem to magically come up with blog posts when I visit.  Some have a Greek Goddess as their muse.  I have Ronald McDonald.

I ran across the street in the pouring rain.  I entered the McDonald’s, and stood on line.  When it was my turn to order, I stepped up to the young woman at the counter.

“Can I help ya?” she asked.

“A small coffee, please.”

“With the senior discount?”

“Wha…?”

“Do you want the senior discount?” she asked again.

Now, I’m usually quick-witted, with a ready reply to any comment.  But her question was so unexpected, I just stood there, as silent as a solid as a statue of an aging Adonis, not knowing what to say.  I’ve gone to bars where they have carded me, and I have laughed at the idea of anyone thinking I was twenty-one, knowing that the dude at the front door is just going through the rituals, but WTF — a SENIOR DISCOUNT?!  A senior discount for my cup of coffee?  For me?   Is that what I look like to a seventeen year old girl?  Isn’t this the typical age of the typical bikini girl in Maxim magazine?  I was hoping that this type of girl would be throwing herself on my bed after I publish that best-selling novel?  I never expected that she would SEE ME as a senior citizen visiting from Boca Raton! 

How much is it to color your hair at Supercuts?

Damn you, McDonald’s!   (but at least I got a post out of you again)

When I returned home, I told my mother the story.   She laughed and laughed, combing her white hair back, selfishly enjoying my misery.   But as an woman who has been a member of the AARP for several years, she also had some sage advice:

“Next time someone asks you if you want the senior discount, you say YES!”

Earth, Wind, and Fire

Today I will continue my tradition of writing a blog post about my neighborhood without walking a block from my mother’s apartment building. 

I’ve introduced you to the supermarket downstairs with the crashing cars and the religious Jewish guy with the condo fliers.  I’ve told my tales of the worst McDonald’s in the United States and the seventeen year old black kid who is the assistant manager and the elderly Chinese saleswoman selling porno DVDs.  I’ve exposed the evil landlord from Palm Beach, Florida, who is trying to close all the small stores a half a block away to build some sort of Kmart.  Today, I’ll move across the street — to the mini-mall next to McDonald’s. 

In this non-descript Los Angeles-style mini-mall, there is a small deli, a chicken/pizza place, a hair stylist, and a “car service.” Other than using the car service to go to the airport, my mother doesn’t go into any of these stores.  They mostly cater to the Muslim, mostly Pakistani and Afghan community.  Now in my mother’s defense, she doesn’t go into the religious Jewish stores on Main Street either.  These small insular establishments are not very friendly to the outsider.  I’ve tried the pizza at the Muslim pizzeria a few times, and the food was pretty bad.  And for the record — women in burkas don’t like you checking out their asses.  But I have used the “car service” to go to the airport.  The drivers are excellent, despite all of them looking like Bin Laden’s brothers.

Over the car service is a small mosque, built into what seems to be a former dentist’s office.   A crescent moon stands proudly on the make-shift fabric domed roof.  From my mother’s living room, you can look directly into the mosque.  It is Ramadan now, so there are services at night.  I sleep in the living room, because the mattress of the convertible bed my mother put into my bedroom is like sleeping on metal.  While I lay on the couch, I can look inside the mosque window and in the brighness of the room, watch the religious praying, kneeling and facing Mecca. 

Later today, is my uncle’s funeral.  It has been a crazy week since he passed away.  He lived in San Francisco, but he wanted to be buried in New York — near my father, who was his eldest brother.  This opened up some neurotic family discussions, and also a debate over how to get him to New York.  He wanted to be cremated, which could be iffy in some Jewish cemeteries. 

And the big question — “Can you carry an urn with ashes on an American Airlines flight?”

This morning, I woke up to the sound of my mother’s loud dishwasher.  I also heard the sound of prayer.  It was comforting, even if it was coming from another religion — from a religious group that doesn’t usually see eye-to-eye with mine.    I thought about religion in general, and how we are all alike at heart.  All of us trying to make sense of life and death, all having the same hopes and dreams.

And then the whirl of the dishwasher stopped.  And what I thought was prayer was not prayer at all.  There was no one praying at the mosque.  What I imagined as sacred prayer was the janitor’s CD player blasting songs from “Earth, Wind, and Fire” as he worked on his old Toyota out front.

Be of Good Cheer

stone2.jpg

During the summer, my father passed away.  My father’s funeral was very beautiful and dignified.  But I was disappointed.  I don’t think it captured my father’s quirky personality. Don’t get me wrong.  Everything went perfect.  Everyone was moved.   It just seemed more for the guests than my father.

After someone dies, everything is very chaotic.  There’s people to call.  Arrangements to make.  The person who died can get lost in the shuffle.

Jewish comedians always make fun of bar mitzvahs, saying that American kids treat them like jokes.  Kids make elaborate parties for their bar mitzvahs, some with crass themes, like baseball teams or Star Trek.   I used to mock these parties myself, but my view is changing.  At least these kids throw a party that reflects themselves.  Why are funerals always so drab.  Why aren’t there any funerals with exotic themes?  

I know this sounds a bit tasteless.  But my father loved the movie "Lawrence of Arabia."  Wouldn’t it be have been cool to have decorated the funeral home like a Arab sheik’s home?  Or an oasis in the Sahara desert?  I’m sure many of the guests would find it tacky and uncomfortable.  But who cares?  My father would have loved it! 

In the Jewish religion, you don’t put up the stone until a year after the death.  Today, my mother called me at home:

"On the way home from work, I bought your father’s stone."

"You did?  It’s only been five months."

"Well, I was in Flushing and I was passing the store. 

"You never can wait, can you?

"It’s going to be a very nice one.   "Kramer" in the middle, and then, "Devoted husband, father, and brother.""

"That’s all?"

"What do you want it to say?"

"I don’t know.  It’s just so… bleh.  It’s like me writing a post that says "Have a Nice Day.""

"We’re not talking about your blodge on the computer.  We’re talking about a stone in a cemetery." 

"How about at least, "Devoted husband, excellent father, and really cool brother?"  I think we can up up with something better for Dad."

"You’re the writer.  You think about it."

I met Sophia at the Coffee Bean.  We sat down to think.  Within thirty seconds, we came up with the exact same solution:

"Be of Good Cheer!"

Be of Good Cheer.  For some reason, my father always ended every phone conversation with that bizarre saying.  I have no idea where he got it from.  I’ve never heard anyone else say it.  It also sounded very 19th Century, like something Sherlock Holmes might say to Dr. Watson.  Maybe my father first heard it in an old movie as a child.

Arthur Kramer, devoted husband, father, and brother.  Be of Good Cheer.

So far, we haven’t sold the idea to my mother.

I know this is a depressing thought, but should we all start thinking about our funerals?  Do you want a traditional  ceremony?  Or something exotic?   Do you care what is written on your stone?  Would you like a certain song to be played?

I always liked "American Pie" from Don McLean:

They were singing,
"bye-bye, miss american pie."
Drove my chevy to the levee,
But the levee was dry.
Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
Singin’, "this’ll be the day that I die."

Heaven or Hell

heavenhell5.jpg
(artwork by Rob Stinogle)

I’m sitting in my local coffee shop and I see that they have some Halloween decorations up already, including a paper cut-out ghost.   

It makes me think of my father, who passed away a few weeks ago.

Not in a scary or eerie way.  If he were to become a ghost, he wouldn’t be a scary one.  He might be a nagging ghost, but not a scary one.   

Whatever.

The paper ghost makes me think about the spirit world and whether it really exists.

I should start out by saying that I don’t really believe in ghosts or spirits or even souls.  I have a pretty scientific outlook on life.  It’s very nice when people say to me that "your father is looking down on you."  I smile and appreciate their kind words.  But I don’t buy it.  To me, believing that is akin to teaching Creationism in school.

heavenhell.jpg

One thing I realize is that most of my images of heaven and hell are colored by Christian thought.  You know, Angels with Wings vs. Dante’s Inferno.  

I think Judaism cleverly plays it dumb by not offering a very clear picture of the afterlife.   Maybe that’s why it’s traditional to rush the body into burial:  so nobody asks the rabbi any tough questions.  
 
Are there any knowledgeable Jews out there who can paint a clear picture of the Jewish afterlife?  What is a Jewish heaven?  Is there a Jewish hell?  Or is the Jewish hell being stuck in heaven for eternity with all of your relatives?

The traditional heaven/hell split is completely unappealing to me.  In Hell, there is suffering and pain — so there must be some sort of sensory feeling.  So, why not some sensory feeling in heaven?   Angels just seem to fly back and forth like Jet Blue flights between JFK and Long Beach.  Without the body, there’s no food, dancing, or sex — all the good stuff.

heaven2.jpg

Who the hell wants to go to heaven?  It sounds more dull than a vacation in Albuquerque.

Sure, your soul is still there.  You can think and ponder great thoughts.   Oh great, it sounds just like being in fucking grad school again.  Who wants that?  And do you at least  get weekends off to go to some keg parties in Hell?  That’s probably where all the hot girls end up anyway.

hell2.jpg

OK, back to my father.  I guess I’m just like other Jews throughout history — avoiding the afterlife issue by talking about all sorts of other things.  How do you think Jews became such good lawyers?

Hi, Dad.  (that is, if they let you read blogs up there.  But wait a minute, you don’t know how to use a computer.  Mom always printed it out for you at work.   And I’m assuming they all have Macs in heaven, right?)  

C’mon, God.  Loosen up a bit.  Don’t make heaven such a drag.  Give the deceased some fun.  I know I’m going to be depressed when I go  — no more pizza, naked women, or reruns of "The Jeffersons." 

And those heavenly robes — I do not look good in white.

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