In Memory of a Macher

There’s a term in Yiddish, “mensch.” If you’re familiar with German, you might know that this is related to the German word “Mensch,” which means, simply, “man” or “person” depending on how contemporary you want to be with your connotations. The difference between the Yiddish and the German, though, is that when you hear someone referred to as “mensch,” it’s in the context of that person doing good deeds – “tzedakah.” Another related term is “macher,” which is less common in daily conversation, but means the same thing, but may even be more explicit in its praise of a person.

I write all this not to give you a Yiddish lesson, but to tell you about a mensch, a macher. His name was Stephen Fischer, and he was a good friend of mine. I say “good friend” to try and get across two points: One, I considered him someone who I could talk to about anything and expect that, no matter how long it had been since we spoke, the conversation would flow easily and would flow in directions as varied as theology, Star Wars canon, or rambling about how rogues are OP in D&D’s 5E. Two, he was, without fear of hyperbole, one of the best humans I’ve ever met. A real macher. 

In the interests of showing and not telling, I’d like to tell you a story. Well, why not? Two. Both of these take place back in the fogs of the past. Somewhere around ten years ago, closer to eleven. He, myself, and another friend were in Ireland for a week. This was during a study abroad trip, when we’d all met for the first time at the University of Kent at Canterbury. On one evening during the week in Dublin, we were wandering aimlessly and – I think – Stephen and Jon, the other friend, were talking about comics. I’d spaced out because they were way out of my league with this stuff. This was, you see, before the Marvel movies came out and everyone was forced to make a choice between superhero fluency and standing awkwardly at the periphery of conversations. 

Suddenly, their conversation stopped. Stephen had sensed trouble. Not trouble in the sense that someone was going to come at us with a butterfly knife, but trouble in the sense that someone was in trouble. There, to our right, in the middle of traffic, was a middle-aged man next his car, which had stalled. The conversation about The Wasp and how Ant-Man was a terrible person bolted across two lanes of Dublin traffic to help this person out. He ran over there, introduced himself, and offered to start pushing the car. Well, Jon and I were thoroughly shamed by this and, not to be outdone, ran over there and helped, as well. We pushed the car off to the side of the road to at least get the guy out of harm’s way and he told us that, in exchange, if we met him at The Brazen Head, just down the road, the drinks were on him and he’d tell us a bit of Irish history. 

We went there. I, honestly, didn’t expect the guy to show up. (I am what they call a pessimist.) Stephen, though, had faith. And, lo and behold, the guy showed up. He was true to his word, our good deed was rewarded, and we had a good story to tell each other in subsequent years, reminding ourselves of some pure fun when life got us down. But aside from that, I think this story illustrates something about Stephen: He was a believe in acts of kindness. We came from different backgrounds – way different – but we had many shared core beliefs. One of them was that actions change (and, I would argue, save) the world. 

For Stephen, performing good deeds and acts of loving kindness was a core expression of his Christianity. We had a lot of conversations about Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism – and, to an extent, Islam – to compare, contrast, and get highlights of philosophies and share them with each other. It’s very much to his credit that Stephen was one of the few Baptists in my life who heard my ideas, considered them, and replied back not with an admonishment of faith vs action, but with a considered opinion and questions on what I thought about his opinion. That was something that always set him apart for me: That consideration not just of ideas, but the very reality that – maybe – when I was obviously on a tear about something as a result of encounters with very inconsiderate Christians, maybe that wasn’t the time to take the usual tack, and that he should listen. Through his example, Stephen taught me something a very valuable lesson about religion that I consider to this day. In fact, when I hear folks decry Christianity as a rapacious tool of, say, imperialism, I think of Stephen, and remind them that, like just about every religion, Christianity’s core can be summarized with a simple rule: “Don’t be a dick.” 

(The more acceptable, Jewish version of this is something I told Stephen about Judaism once. A jerk went up to the Rabbi Hillel and accused him of not being as good as he was reputed to be. The jerk said, “If you were so good, you could teach me the Torah while I stood here on one foot.” So, Hillel told him that he could. The jerk stood on one foot and balanced himself. Hillel said, “Love thy neighbor. The rest is commentary.”)

Stephen was, further, possessing of the type of mind that I find most enjoyable: One that expresses wonder of the world through a bizarre, slightly dark, sense of humor. It is my opinion that this sort of sense of humor is a coping mechanism – or, at least, it is for me. When you look into the darkness of the daily news cycle – something that weighed heavily on Stephen, especially when architectural metaphors like the Notre Dame cathedral were setting on fire – it’s all you can do to make a joke. Otherwise, you lose it.

That sense of humor was, beyond the deep discussions we had about just about anything, the glue that kept us in sync. It was what kept the in-jokes around. It was the beginning and end of conversations, even when he’d call me at 2 in the morning his time, and I’d admonish him in the voice of the Jewish mother he never had, “Look at you, bubbeleh, it’s 2 in the morning and you’re awake – es ist eyn shande!” In fact, this became an in-joke. I kept a GMT clock on my home desktop, and he would call and laugh, saying, “I’m really just calling you at this time because I know it’ll annoy you that I’m awake.” 

Stephen was a good, good friend. While we never get enough time with the people that make up the core group of people who we lean on, I find myself, when I think about missed opportunities for a phone call or a visit, reminding myself that all we have is a few opportunities for contact. That’s the way life is. Sometimes the stars align; sometimes they don’t. When they don’t, and we find ourselves unable to ever see that person again, we must be glad for the times we did share. And now, as I sit in my living room, listening to GWAR’s “Phantom Limb” and reminiscing about good times with a good friend, I have to remind myself of that. The time that we did get, those times when we were able to meet up when I was in the UK after a work trip, were good times – even when they were really challenging. That’s the important thing: That the times existed in the first place.

Oh, and that second story: One time – also when we were abroad that first time – we were young and stupid and in Paris. We looked across a massive traffic circle at the Arc de Triomphe and, without really looking for an alternative, ran across the fuckin thing. Many years later, Stephen and I were on the phone one Saturday and he said, “That time we bolted across the roundabout? Not only could we have died, but that was extraordinarily illegal!” Nevermind the death, the sentence seems to indicate, we broke a law when we were abroad!

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The Trail-Approved Sandwich

My love for sandwiches is something that is well-documented. A good sandwich, I think is something to remember. This is not something to just consume while hungry, not something that you’ll find pre-packaged in the semi-functional refrigerator at a Plaid Pantry or 7-Eleven. It is, in its ideal form, a refreshing, heaping dollop of protein, dairy, veggies, and bread. It is an all-around whole meal in a holdable, semi-portable form.

For me, the ideal sandwich is not a Reuben, though a Reuben is always appreciated and, at times, direly needed. No, the ideal sandwich is a pastrami, roast beef, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, and brown mustard on rye. This is the idea. You can switch out the cheese or meats and be okay, but God help you if you skimp on the rye. It must be a rye bread sandwich, or the whole thing falls apart. White bread is barely bread. Whole grain or whole wheat are too health-conscious and are, as they say, missing the point. I don’t trust sourdough, and pumpernickel is an abomination in the sight of the Lord. Rye or get the hell out.

I’m talking about sandwiches to talk about what I did today – and yes, indeed, eating a sandwich was involved. You see, today, I did some trail work. Trail work – as I recently learned – is focused on improving trails in national parks and is typically done by volunteers. See, in the back of my head, I’d always known that trails need to be cleared of overgrowth so that they can be more easily used by people; the catch is that, since I am not by any definition an outdoorsman, I’d kind of always assumed this was what park rangers did when they weren’t educating the public, making sure people don’t kill themselves, or keeping bears from stealing picnic baskets. Turns out that this is the work of mainly volunteers, a bunch of people who get together on trail work parties, and do stuff like trim back overgrowth, stop water from breaking up a trail, or maintain paths by the aid of these big shovel things that are not actually shovels (but basically are).

I joined one of these things after being goaded into it by a friend of mine who works for the Mt. St. Helen’s Institute. I’m not clear on what the MSHI does aside from organize trail work and educate people, but I know they also watch goats. They may or may not look out at the volcano and say, “Right, you pull those tricks again and we’ll have words with you.”

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Mt. St. Helen’s. That’s a cloud. Not an eruption.

The work party I joined was to clear out a trail to Butte Camp Dome. This trail starts off near a lava field – a bunch of rocks where there used to be lava. Based on these rocks not looking like dried lava, I assume that these rocks were pitched out of the volcano when it erupted, but hey, I don’t know and I didn’t think to ask when I had the opportunity. This is how I operate, and why many of my opinions are the way they are. Anyway, it cuts up through some forest that’s well on the way to regrowth, the brunt of the eruption being on the North side of the mountain. It is, for lack of a better word, very woodsy. Someone more outdoors-minded than me can tell you all about the trees, about the flowers that were growing, and all of those important details, but the only thing that I can tell you is that there were surprisingly few birds. There were also a lot of blueberries, which made for delicious snacks along the way.

What I did was simple: I took loppers and a saw and cut away woodsy bits that were starting to creep into the trail. I did this because, in the words of our team lead, Clare, “Nature was touching me, and we don’t want to be touched by nature when we’re on a trail.” So, you got brushed by a bunch of stick things? Probably time to stop walking and cut away some of the growth. It was simple stuff, not too demanding, and a pleasant way to spend a few hours. See, my friend Chauncey and I had to leave early so that Chauncey could make it back to Portland to see an accountant. Not a very thrilling reason to duck out early, but there you go. The group lead was a guy named Brandon, who had massive dreads, used the word “mindful” a lot, and seemed to be the type of person who wouldn’t really like being in a city for any longer than he had to be. Brandon assigned us to brush clearing because it was pretty easy and we’d be close-ish to the trailhead to make it easy for us to duck out.

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So many rocks!

So anyway, we started on the trail clearing. I talked to Clare and her friend Erin for a while – both of them were people who really dug being outside. They went on hikes, both had personal hard hats from the Washington Trails Association, and did stuff like go on 25-mile hikes. They said that going on the said 25-mile hike was the first time they met, and in my head, I thought, “Jesus, I don’t think I’ve gone on 25 miles worth of hiking in my life.” Solid people, the both of them, and folks I’d like to run into again.

Anyway, we were on the trail, clearing things out, chatting as we went and having pretty good fun along the way. It’s something that I’ve wanted to be more proactive about for a while, this whole going outside and doing things out in the forests. It pops in my head every time I read about how we’re, like, ten years away from being past the point of no return when it comes to turning our world into a hellscape because of greenhouse gasses. I’ll read an article, think “I need to go out to Mt. Hood National Forest,” and then wind up turning on a movie again.

But this time, I had my friend Sarah in the back of my head. Sarah’s the one who works for MHSI, and when I told her a while back that I was seriously thinking about going on a trail work party, she pointed me in the direction. When I delayed on signing up for about three months, she texted “I don’t think you’re actually going to do it,” and I signed up that very goddamn day. See, nothing’s quite as effective at getting me to do something than getting called out like that. So I signed up for the thing, talked a friend into going along, and then waited for the time to come along.

So you fast forward to this past Thursday, when I realized that I didn’t have work gloves, I didn’t have a backpack, and I hadn’t really given thought to how to pack for this thing. Luckily, we live in a consumer product-focused world, and I solved the first two problems easily enough. Then I got to thinking about what to bring on the trail and I thought, “The sandwich. It must be the sandwich.”

*

For the past year, I’ve been living a largely grain carb-free existence. I’ve cut out most bread and rice – except for Saturdays and the odd meal here and there – and beer. As a result, I’ve dropped about thirty pounds. [Pauses for applause.] This has had the effect of me no longer having my preferred lunch – the sandwich I mentioned above. I’ve missed the sandwich, but when your blood pressure shoots up to horrific levels and you need to lose weight so you don’t die, the sandwich is something you can afford to lose.

But this time, looking at least a couple of miles’ worth of hiking and some physical work – and it being a Saturday – I thought that the sandwich would be called for. It was something needed. Something that’d wrap the day up into a bow, cap everything off with a nice, refreshing taste, and provide energy for a bit more work if required, and be enough to tide over hunger until dinner. Then I thought about how hungry I am as a general rule and threw in a couple of protein bars as well.

So, after prepping all of the ingredients for the sandwich, I wrapped them up in aluminum foil, put them in a tupperware container, stashed everything in my backpack, and got ready to go.

I touched on the trail work above, but the lunch was something that should stand out. After a few hours’ work, we stepped off the trail and sat around in the shade, near a fallen tree, looking out to the woods on our left and all around us, and the slight incline heading up toward Butte Camp Dome. I ate the sandwich, enjoyed it, and had, for the first time in a while, several extended periods of no-thought. Stillness of mind. “Mindfulness” if that’s more your speed. It wasn’t because of the sandwich. It wasn’t because of the setting. It wasn’t because of the work I’d been doing. It certainly wasn’t because I was being orbited by a group of persistent flies. All of that, though, came together and helped. It all pointed to those moments where my brain shut up for just a second. I stopped thinking about work. I stopped thinking about how I should set up my dating profile. I stopped thinking about how my roommate was so loud all the time. Fo those brief, shining moments, I could feel The Quiet, as a friend used to say

It wasn’t because of the sandwich. The sandwich, though, didn’t hurt.

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The potentially helpful sandwich.

The Unbearable Sadness of a Cold Kosher Meal on an Intercontinental Flight, Seated in Economy

I do a lot of travelling internationally, and I’ve learned two closely-related things. 1: Meals on airliners have gotten a lot better – almost to the point of being enjoyable; 2: Airliners – or, I suppose, the crew on airliners, do not know how to handle a kosher meal. This isn’t me saying that they go around, piercing the protective plastic on meals and rubbing bacon on them. This is me saying that, no matter what happens, the common denominator of all airlines, whether United, Delta, KLM, or, God help us all, China Eastern Airlines, is that the kosher meal is a clusterfuck of frozen entrees and poor tray engineering.

Now, I started ordering kosher meals not out of some sudden religious leanings. If you know me, then you’ll know that my Jewishness tends to exert itself in purely secular means with the exception of a near-genetic need to go to services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Beyond that, the most religious I get is occasionally looking at my copy of the abridged Talmud and thinking, “No, I think I’d rather read King Solomon’s Mines again.” Instead, the kosher meal came out of buying into the old, tired standup joke that the kosher meal is the only one worth having on airplane. It’s so old and tired that you don’t hear it anymore – no one tells it! It’s a dumb, dumb joke, but it wormed itself into the black matter of my brain and here we are.

So anyway, I’ve seen it all. Meals where I’ve had to chip away at the frozen pasta entree that resembled more a block of ice than anything edible. I’ve had meals where the purified water that comes in the tray (why is that necessary? Surely the Chasidim can trust the goyim enough to drink the water out of a Dasani bottle, right?) is a big ice cube that I, no joke, have licked through the course of a flight, like some horrible, confused cow. I’ve been party to an incredibly confused China Eastern Airlines crew on a Bangkok-Shanghai flight that came up to me, said, “Mr. Simon? Kosher?” and handed me an apple instead of a breakfast.

But, in the scheme of things, nothing illustrates the vast chasm between the mythical comforts of first class and the deprivations of economy like the Goddamned tray. As you’re probably aware, reader, when you’re given a meal on a plane, the meal comes in either a small tray or a box, designed to fit the incredibly tiny real estate you’re given by way of the tray table in the seat in front of you, or the rickety, foldable one that lives in your armrest. If you’re eating normal human food, then that box or tray suffices and you can still eat and move your arms like a human being. If you, however, go the kosher route, then you’re given a big fuckoff plastic brick of mediocre food, with everything individually wrapped, and then another, smaller plaster brick consisting of an entree. You see, Jews are ethnic types and, like all ethnic types, we’re very concerned that you’re not eating enough, and want to rectify that.

The average kosher meal consists of the following:

An entree consisting of

  • Chicken in horrible barbecue sauce, or
  • Pasta in not enough horrible sauce, or
  • Surprisingly good salmon, or
  • Some frankly bizarre noodle that I’ve never seen outside of an airplane and, somehow, wrecks my digestive tract for days

Side dishes consisting of:

  • A flour-based roll that’s fine, but actually enjoyable if you get peanut butter
  • Some dessert that always tastes slightly off
  • Fruit compote
  • Salad that’s… well, it fits the definition of salad
  • Aforementioned, pre-packaged water

All of this, as mentioned before, comes in surprisingly durable plastic cling film.

Now, reader, I want you to imagine working your way through all of that while you’re crammed into an economy seat. I’ve recently lost 30 pounds (thank you, thank you), but despite that, I’m broad-boned enough to make getting into these seats and expanding so that I feel comfortable is only doable if there’s no one in the seat next to me. If that seat is occupied, I inevitably sit with my arms crossed and trying not to make contact with that person because there is nothing more horrific in the world than making contact with a stranger on an airplane. Just sitting in the chair, not to mention trying to get to your carry-on or changing books, or what have you, is a big enough pain in the ass. Now, you factor in having to disassemble the construction listed above, and what is it? Madness. Just madness. Like a sad Cirque du Soleil show, you find yourself contorting in the seat, trying to disassemble your tray enough to eat the food in front of you, stacking things here, sorting things there, wondering if the people who designed this tray have ever seen an airplane before.

As I write this, I came off a plane where the guy next to me popped a couple of sleeping pills the moment our plane taxied at JFK and immediately fell asleep, leaning perilously close to my limited shoulder space. I do say this with a modicum of pride: I managed to get through most of the meal without nudging the dude or – more impressively – spilling anything on the floor, causing a cascading chain of embarrassment that I would, likely, never have recovered from. But still, despite eating the hummus, the roll, and whatever it was that was in the compote, I couldn’t break into the cling film of the entree – and, indeed, I have no idea what was in there.

But more strangely, again, is the frozen block of ice that was the purified drinking water cup. I’m not sure how that happens. Are these meals stored in a freezer on the plane? Likely. Maybe. I guess. The only alternative I can figure out is that they have the meals chained to the wings of the plane, and must bring them into the plane by way of a pulley system. Anything else is too absurd to be possible.

So, how do we fix this? Well, obviously, this is now where I make a desperate plea to all kosher caterers around the world – who seem to all be based in either Brooklyn or Jamaica, NY, or Brussels – to please, for the love of HaShem, spend a little bit of time in an economy-class seat and think about what you’re doing to your fellow Jews. Trying to get through these meals on a plane? Eyn shandeh fur di Goyim.