Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Oh, Brother

When I was a kid, there was nothing more I wanted to be than my older brother, Brian. Four years my senior, he was my image of cool, and I did all I could to serve as his “Mini-Me.” I listened to the same music. I played the same sports. I mimicked his hairstyle. I even dressed like him.

(Of course, that was partly due to the fact that my wardrobe rarely consisted of much more than his hand-me-downs, but still.)

As I got older, I naturally individualized, developing my own set of interests, but I never strayed far from the course Brian had set. Sharing the same values, morals and sense of humor, I figured our lives would always track in a similar direction.

That is, until Brian made a life-altering move that I simply could not duplicate:

He became a rabbi.

It’s now been over six years since Brian gave up his prestigious post as Press Secretary for a U.S. Senator to go to rabbinical school, yet I haven’t fully grasped that he is a “Man of the Tallis.” Hearing him identify himself as “Rabbi Brian Stoller” on his outgoing voicemail message still makes me laugh in amazement.

And while I have seen him co-officiate our cousin’s wedding, listened to him talk in-depth about the Torah and heard him chant at our grandmother’s funeral, nothing could have completely prepared me for my recent trip to his congregation for high-holiday services.

From the very beginning, I felt as if I was in an alternate universe. When my family and I pulled up to the temple and identified ourselves as relatives of the rabbi, the security guards went scrambling to accommodate us, directing us to a special, coned-off area of the parking lot, only a few steps from the front entrance.

Once inside, you would’ve thought we were royalty, as numerous members kept stopping us on our way to our reserved seats in the VIP section to gush over how wise and well-respected Brian was.

I guess they hadn’t heard that he used to run around the house in Superman Underoos.

But as the service got going, all of the complimentary things they had said about Brian were proven to be accurate. He was self-assured and confident. He was an outstanding speaker. He was a commanding presence on the pulpit.

He was…a rabbi.

Sitting in the audience, watching him lead his congregants in prayer, I was impressed – though certainly not surprised – with what my brother had become.

But I was also struck by how drastically our paths had diverged. I mean, here I was, in synagogue for maybe the fourth time since the Clinton administration, and there was Brian, standing in his white robe, giving the sermon on one of the holiest days of the Jewish year.

I couldn’t help wondering how this had happened. Where did Brian find this motivation? How had he located this road to soul-saving enlightenment that I had missed?

After all, we had grown up in the same house, where Shabbat dinner consisted of saying the blessings over a Domino’s pizza. Sure, we both had Bar Mitzvahs, and the Jewish Community Center often served as our second home, but our religion was not an integral part of our day-to-day existence.

Yet Brian somehow ended up developing a hunger, a yearning to seek out and learn about our heritage. Maybe it was because he was rejected by a girl because of his religion, or maybe it was because he had spent so much time as a kid at his best friend’s home, who happened to be the son of our rabbi.

Whatever it was, I apparently didn’t get the memo.

Judaism has just never engaged me. Like many kids, my parents made me attend religious school, hoping that I would embrace the faith I was given at birth. But I got absolutely nothing out of it. The subjects that were taught were uninspiring, and the song sessions made me cringe with annoyance. When I wasn’t misbehaving with my friends or watching the clock to see how much longer I had left, I was waiting for the cute girl two desks over to finally make eye contact with me.

Going to services was just as tedious – and much more confusing. With all of the Hebrew and sophisticated English being spoken, everything went way over my head. I didn’t know what I was praying for or rising to my feet in honor of.

How can you connect with something that you can’t understand?

So I’d bide my time until an opening presented itself – typically, right before the sermon – to take an extended bathroom break.

Practicing Judaism felt like something that I was being forced to do, so once I was out from under my parents’ jurisdiction, I put an end to the charade. I did not see the point in going to synagogue or reciting prayers or celebrating traditions if I wasn’t getting anything out of the experience.

Instead, I’ve chosen to express myself spiritually in my own way. I pray more than I ever have, but I do it whenever and wherever I feel the need, regardless of what the calendar reads. I say prayers that make sense to me. I express my thanks to G-d in a manner that resonates with who I am.

Despite my lack of formality, I do consider myself to be Jewish, and I still fast on Yom Kippur and attend the family Seder on Passover. If I ever have kids, I plan on raising them with a Jewish background.

But once they reach an age when they are informed and educated enough, I’ll encourage them to make their own decision about their faith, and I will honor whatever they choose. Because no matter what any biblical law says, I believe that what truly makes a person a Jew – or a writer or a golfer or anything that is part of one’s identity – is what is in their heart and mind, not their family tree.

I realize that there are those who look down on me for not being more active, that some see me as a catalyst for the demise of the Jewish religion. And maybe I am. But I’d rather be viewed as a “bad Jew” by my peers than stand in temple as a fraud before G-d.

Besides, if not practicing Judaism on a regular basis earmarks me for a not-so-pleasant after-life, I figure my brother can make a few calls to negotiate for my eternal salvation.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Home Is Where The Heart Is

I have never enjoyed talking on the phone. Maybe it’s because I fear the awkward lapses in conversation, or maybe it’s because I feel I’m being rude whenever I end a call, but it has always been my least favorite form of communication.

I much prefer keeping in touch through e-mails and text messages, so I don’t have to…you know…talk to anyone.

One of the few exceptions to this anxiety, though, is when my parents are on the other end of the line. I like getting the recap of my dad’s latest round of golf or my mom’s recent Kabbalah meeting, and I know they’ll still love me, even if I have nothing interesting to say.

But when my phone rang the other day, and the contact “Home” showed up on my caller ID, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness.

That’s because, after nearly 40 years of living in the same city, my parents finally decided to move.

In the background, I could hear the packing of boxes, the loading of trucks and the ending of an era. It hit me that this was the last call I’d ever receive from this number.

My sense of equilibrium was thrown off, because I have always considered my true home to be where my parents are. Maybe that’s the Peter Pan in me, but despite moving all over the country, I have never changed my permanent address. I have had the sense that every place I've gone was just temporary, while my roots remained anchored with my mom and dad.

And for my entire life, they have been anchored in Houston. It’s where my parents were married and where they built a life together. It’s where my brother and I were raised. It’s where I could go whenever I needed to feel safe and grounded again.

Of course, once I graduated college and began looking for a job, I wanted to get as far away from Texas as possible. Hoping to increase my independence, Houston was at the very bottom of my list of desirable destinations.

So over the next several years, I bounced around different regions, from the Deep South, to the Rockies, to the Northeast.

But no matter where I went, whenever I told people that I was from Houston, they all responded with the same I’m-sorry-to-hear-that “Oh,” like they had asked me how my girlfriend was – only to find out I had just been dumped.

And while my initial instinct was to stick up for my hometown, I knew it was a tough case to make.

After all, Houston is not the nicest of cities. It’s flat and unappealing to the eye. Everything is spread out, making the overwhelming traffic that much less bearable. The heat and humidity in the summer make you sweat more than Matthew McConaughey in A Time to Kill. And because there are no zoning laws, the layout of the city is completely disorganized, with million-dollar homes backing up to Boyz-in-the-Hood projects.

But in my mind, nothing captures the essence of Houston more perfectly than the sight of a Zone d’Erotica sitting next to one of the nicest malls in town.

In spite of all of that, it’s still home to me. I have a history there. I can drive around and, block after block, see the story of my life unfold. The house where I grew up is just a few blocks from the McDonald’s that I rode my bike to as a kid, which is across the intersection from the Blockbuster where I worked in high school, which is right down the street from the field where I used to play football with my friends.

Even though I’m no longer a resident, the city is never far from my mind. At my desk in Maryland, I often listen to the internet feed of Houston sports talk, so I can keep up with how my teams are doing. And when the station runs a commercial for the local institution Gallery Furniture, I can only smile, because I still have their phone number committed to memory (694-5570).

So while I might not ever live there again, I will always be a Houstonian at heart.

It’s going to be weird to go home and not go to Houston. Last week, I was arranging my flight for Thanksgiving, and just as I was about to click “Purchase,” I realized I had to start over – I had booked myself into Houston’s George Bush International instead of Austin’s Bergstrom.

As with any change, I’m sure there is going to be an adjustment period for everyone. But I know that my parents will be extremely happy in their new community. My dad will have his own personal golf cart, which he can drive to one of the three courses in the neighborhood. And Austin is scenic and “hippie” enough to nurture my mom’s granola, spiritual side.

Luckily, it already sounds like they’re getting settled in, and I can’t wait to get down there to see it all for myself. Sure, the house may not be in Houston anymore, but I’m comforted in knowing that when I walk through the door, I’ll be met with all of the love and warmth that makes my family so special.

Because even though the phone number behind it has changed, the meaning of “Home” never will.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Family Ties

Ever since I was young, my parents have stressed to me the importance of family. With my dad’s side based in Dallas, they routinely piled my brother and me into the car for the four-hour drive from Houston, so we could spend time with that portion of the family tree.

Fortunately, when it came to my mom’s relatives, distance wasn’t an issue, as nearly everyone was a Houstonian. So whether it was going to our weekly Sunday night dinners or having the biggest cheering section at my tee ball games – including my great-grandmother, high heels and all – I was constantly surrounded by love.

It was special to have so many people I cared about serve an integral role in my daily life. Sure, like any family, we dealt with the usual disagreements and flare-ups of tension. But whenever someone’s feelings were hurt or the pot roast was not sliced to specification, there was one common bond that could always bring us back together:

Texas Longhorn football.

The University of Texas at Austin has one of the most successful, tradition-rich football programs in the country, boasting more wins than Oklahoma, Alabama and Notre Dame. It has produced two Heisman Trophy heroes, four national championships and countless exciting moments.

And my family has lived and died with nearly every one of them.

The obsession started with my grandfather, Lou “Pop” Marks, who graduated from UT. A brilliant, charismatic salesman by trade, his true passion was football. So when the opportunity presented itself, he got involved with the program, lending a hand wherever he could.

When the Longhorns hired a bright, young assistant coach named Fred Akers, they asked Pop to help him get settled in his new environment. The two bonded instantly, and through recruiting trips, late-night film sessions and dinners on the road, they became the closest of friends.

In 1977, Akers was named the successor to Darrell Royal – the winningest coach in school history, and the man whose name would eventually be put on the front of the stadium. Trying to replace a legend, Coach Akers needed all the support he could get.

So my grandfather stepped up, traveling to road games and staying in the team hotels. He used his business savvy to promote the coach’s radio show, and he established a weekly breakfast that re-engaged the alumni with the program.

But above all else, he was a confidant, someone the coach could count on amid all of the chaos that encapsulates the world of college football.

It’s no wonder, then, that hanging in my grandfather’s office is a signed photograph from Coach Akers with a dedication that reads: “To my right arm.”

Pop’s love for the Longhorns was contagious. My late grandmother, Mom, was the sweetest, most kind-hearted woman who ever walked the earth, and growing up, she didn’t know anything about football. But after being married to Pop for 41 years, she was cheering for the good guys and cursing opposing coaches.

This passion permeated the entire family. My mom, my aunt and my uncle all have degrees from UT. And when grandchildren came into the picture, Pop had a new audience to mold.

So once we were old enough, Pop started teaching us about the sanctity of Texas football. He took us to practice, where we met the coaches and played catch on the sidelines. He filled our closets with burnt orange apparel, so we didn’t have to wear any shade of red (the color of the Horns’ biggest rivals). He impressed upon us that sending a college application to another school could be grounds for disownment.

And when we were lucky, he took us with him to Austin to see the Longhorns in person. Riding shotgun, we’d cruise the backwoods, two-lane roads Pop preferred (interstates are for grandmas), flashing the “Hook ‘Em Horns” sign to everyone we flew past.

As if attending the game wasn’t enough, Pop would let us go with him down to the locker room afterwards, where we’d get to high-five and take pictures with our favorite players.

It was a thrilling experience – except for one, small issue…

A football locker room is like a nudist colony, with all of the guys getting undressed and cleaned up before heading to the bus. And because we were so short, we had the unfortunate vantage point that gave us an up-close look at what exactly was and was not covered by a jock strap.

That can be a traumatic encounter for a 9-year-old.

In hindsight, it’s probably why my brother, Brian, eventually stopped following the team and became a rabbi…he had to purify his soul somehow.

But not all of us were jaded.

With just two months separating us in age, my cousin Andrew and I were born under the same burnt orange moon. We are both equally insane, spending countless hours obsessing over the team – studying depth charts, scouring message boards for inside information and watching recruiting reels to identify the next Texas star. After an exhilarating win or a devastating loss, he’s the one person out there I know who is experiencing the same range of emotions that I am.

So it was only fitting that we were together on January 4, 2006 to see the Horns play Southern Cal for the national title. Every trip we’d taken to Austin, every humiliating defeat we’d survived, every lesson Pop had taught us – they had all led us to this night.

The game was a rollercoaster ride, with two talented teams trading punches for the full 60 minutes, and it was a test of our sanity.

Nataly, Andrew’s fiancĂ©e (now his wife), was there, but she just tried to stay out of the way. As I was screaming at the big screen, and Andrew was fiddling with the TV volume to find the optimum karmic level (yes, superstitious rituals, such as adjusting the sound or switching seats, can affect the outcome of a sporting event), she had to be asking herself:

What kind of family am I marrying into?

When Vince Young scored the winning touchdown, securing the Longhorns first championship in 36 years, it was almost too much for Andrew and me to handle. Like two little boys, we fell to the floor and rolled around on top of each other.

Somewhere, Pop was smiling.

I often question why I invest so much time and energy into something as trivial as a college football team. Looking at it rationally, it makes no sense. There are no problems being solved or discoveries being made. There are no diseases being cured or lives being saved.

At the end of the day, it’s just a bunch of 18 to 22-year-old boys playing a game.

But the truth is that UT football is in my blood, and it’s something that keeps me tied to my family, like a second religion. Just seeing that burnt orange uniform, just hearing the “Eyes of Texas” reconnects me with my roots, and the memories come flooding back.

I think about finishing Thanksgiving dinner in time for the kickoff against A&M. I think about Pop throwing me passes in the Astrodome as the team practiced for their bowl game. I think about tailgating on Rosh Hashanah with matzo ball soup in the stadium parking lot.

It’s just part of who I am. And no matter what I do or where I go, Fall Saturdays will always be about watching the Longhorns play.

Hook ‘Em Horns!

About Me

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?