Archive | February, 2014

The Mourning

21 Feb

Kind of a tough topic, this one.  Not exactly a toe-tapper for a Friday, but appropriate given the week.  We’re very good friends with our next door neighbors.  He happens to also be our Rabbi, she happens to be wonderful, and their two sons are great young men and we’ve forged equally strong friendships with them.  Not too often you find friends like this.  Since I try not to name direct names in Stew’s Brew, other than my own family, I’ll just call them Rabbi, the glassblower (for son #1, since that’s his profession), Miami (son #2 goes there to school) and for the wife, who defies all description, I’ll just call her The Most Interesting Woman in The World.  (And those that know her, will laugh, as will she!)

The Rabbi’s dad died on Monday of this week – he had been stricken ill by a catastrophic stroke at 81 years old.  Generally, he had been in great health up until late fall, when he had what seemed like a smaller version of this and had fallen and hit his head, but he was rebounding from that and coming along well.  And then … well, G-d was merciful and swift.

The funeral was yesterday, Rabbi spoke, his sister spoke, Rabbi’s uncle (brother to the deceased) spoke, and the glassblower spoke.  All of them had such eloquent words to say about their departed dad, brother, and grandfather.  Funerals are both wonderful things and terribly sad things.  When attending funerals such as yesterdays, I find myself thinking a couple of thought streams – one, “what stops us from saying such wonderful things about the living?”  And two, a thought I have when I don’t know the deceased well, “I sure wish I knew him better.”

The things I already knew about Rabbi’s dad were that he was a nice man, he was always impeccably dressed whenever I saw him, even if the dress was casual, he had a very close relationship with the two grandsons I knew, the glassblower and Miami, (Rabbi’s sister also has three kids, and there’s more), The Most Interesting Woman in the World thought he was a wonderful grandpa and father-in-law, and loved his wife, and he was very proud of his son, the Rabbi.  I also knew that his first wife had passed some years ago, but I wasn’t sure how long, and that he had found someone and remarried, and she is a wonderful person too.  But honestly, that was about it – we’d been around him and his wife for events where their family was present, and sat across from each other at a few Shabbat dinners but that was about it.

What I learned about him at the funeral is that he was a quiet, steadfast guy, who immensely loved his family, worked exceptionally hard his whole life to provide well for his family, that despite having a son in the rabbinate, that he wasn’t a terribly religious guy, although he loved watching his son do the work, and that when he remarried late in life, he became Grandpa and “Dad” to his new wife’s whole family as well.  We also heard so many wonderful and often humorous stories as each person spoke.  There was much love in the room in this funeral.

I wish I had known him better, for sure.  I do know first hand the emptiness Rabbi and his sister must be feeling, having lost my Dad 21+ years ago.  There’s no moving on from that.  The ache gets replaced with warmth, but the hole in your life is never refilled.

This takes me in a different direction.  Since embracing Judaism, I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by the Jewish grieving process.  First the burial process is even different.  If geography, family arrival, etc. all align, the tradition is to have a funeral no more than two days after death, and ideally, the following day.  They don’t embalm the body, and in traditional ways, the bodies are never left alone from death until burial, nor are they dressed in street or fine clothing but instead are lovingly washed and then wrapped in a simple linen shroud.  The casket is all wood, and is placed in direct contact with the earth.  The funeral services are somewhat similar, but the graveside is quite a bit different, and well, comforting.  You literally watch as the crew lowers the casket into the grave, and then at the end, the tradition is for each mourner to shovel three scoops of dirt into the grave on top of the casket.  And after that, the tradition is to wait until the crew fills the grave with dirt.

After that, the tradition moves to “Shiva” which is gathering at the home of the mourners – and do what folks do in that sense – eat, schmooze, reminisce and tell stories of the deceased.  It is somewhat like a wake, but takes place after the funeral.  Very traditionally, it is a week-long time – but most cut that to a few days at most.  The Shiva period I think is very unique as it allows the mourners to sort of “ease back into life” from the shock of death and the rawness of the funeral.  By being around friends and family, having others attend to things like food and drink and housework and cleaning, the mourners can concentrate on remembrance and healing.  It’s a good tradition.

My own observations are interesting.  The first time I was confronted with the dirt shoveling thing, was at a friends’ brother’s funeral and I’ll be honest, I couldn’t do it.  Since then I’ve come to terms with it, and I feel it is very much like “putting someone to bed” for the last time.  At a time when that person can no longer take care of themselves, we on this side of the spectrum, take care of it for them. Make no mistake though, it is I think the moment of a funeral when the grief is the most raw.  And after that’s done and you walk away, it is time to start “coming back.  If you look at grief as an upside down bell curve, the bottom of the curve is that moment.

While I don’t know anyone that “likes” going to shiva, the process is wonderful to watch – it’s a bit like a party, wake, family reunion, etc. all rolled together.  It is traditional to have a brief service each day, and the rhythm of it, I truly do believe, serves the needs of the bereaved.  The mood seems to get progressively lighter, until by the last day, everyone is just ready for it to all be over so they can get on with life.

So anyway, a melancholy blog post to end a melancholy week. The weather was weird and gray, and miserable and this happened too. Ugh.

As this went on, I was reminded over and over this week of the passing of my own dad in July of 1992, and much of the same things were said about Rabbi’s dad as were said about mine.  “He was a great guy.”  “He was all about his family.”  “He never met a stranger.”  “Everywhere he went, he always knew someone.”  “He was always helping others.”  That made yesterday both a very tough funeral for me, and a very, well, enjoyable one as well. And, as I said before, I wish I had known him better.

Shabbat Shalom.

As you were,


Railroaded: A Series of Unfortunate Events

11 Feb

Living in the Chicago suburbs and working in downtown Chicago, I’m fortunate in being able to utilize one of the better commuter rail systems in the country to make my 40 mile trek to the office every morning.  That said, with this winter’s incredibly severe weather, with extreme cold, constant snow, etc., the commuting experience has been challenging.  At the height of the Polar Vortex mess in January, the trains were barely running – on one afternoon, Metra was so screwed up that they cancelled half their schedule, and the part that remained, only 30% ran on time.  On my line that day, the North Central Service line, there are only six trains – four during rush hour, and two more.  The hour rush hour trains were all combined into one – the 5:31 departure, which “sailed” at 10 minutes until six.

Yesterday was another very cold day and I had a commute that could only be described as “a series of unfortunate events” – borrowing from the movie and book title a few years ago.  I decided to catch the 5:31 departure, which means I need to be out the door of my office by about 5:00 PM to catch the bus to the train station.  I arrive about 10 minutes before departure and the outbound train hasn’t arrived yet.  Not a big panic, this happens fairly frequently – the train will pull in about 5 min before departure time, everyone gets on, and off we go.  Well, 5:31 comes and goes, and no train – Metra, who has been accused of poor communications is over-compensating now, but most of the communications are useless. For example, they often have circular logic “your train is operating 10 minutes late today due to the train operating late” or something like that.  Useless.  And yesterday was no exception – all they kept saying was “the 5:31 North Central Service train will arrive on Track 5 and depart shortly after”.  Ooh, thanks for that.  How about the one thing we all want to hear?  When?  When indeed.  Read on.

The train arrived at about 5:35, and the crowd piles in.  Thankfully, I was at the head of the line to board and was able to grab one of the plumb seats that people don’t expect you to share.  These are on the upper level against the bulkhead and are a full-sized seat, but no one but couples ever share those.  So a lucky moment there.  And we sit.  5:40 comes and goes and no announcement.  Finally at 5:45 the conductor comes on the PA and says that we’re late due to a mechanical issue that they are fixing on the locomotive, and that the same issue was the cause of the late-arriving equipment.  He comes on again at 5:50 and says “Ok, we’re close, should be leaving in a minute or two” – and we did.

So … 20 minutes late.  Not a trainsmash (RIMSHOT), but not ideal.  We roll along, making our usual stops and as we’re gaining speed coming out of the O’Hare Airport Transfer stop, suddenly the lights and HVAC in our car goes out and the train starts coasting to a stop – silent.  Normally, even on a very long train, you can feel the rumble and thrum of the locomotive.  There’s no rumble or thrum.  Just the dim emergency lights.  Uh oh.  We roll to a stop and … sit.  For a solid 8 minutes we sit with no updates from the crew or anything.   Finally the conductor comes on the PA and says “Well folks, the issue earlier with the locomotive was that we were getting a warning light that there was a problem with the water pumps on the engine.  We checked and everything seemed to be OK, so we thought it was the computer.  We finally were able to clear it and go.  And just now, that same warning flashed on and less than a minute later, the engine just quit dead.  The computer won’t let us attempt to restart it. I guess the computer wasn’t kidding around. So, sorry about this, but we’re working on a “plan b” for you here.”  REALLY?

Thankfully, plan B departed the station just 10 minutes behind us – the 6:00 PM train.  After about 5 minutes, the conductor came back on and said that the 6:00 would come up behind us, they’d couple the trains together, and would push us.  He estimated it would take 15 minutes to get the two trains together.  We heard the train roll up behind us (I was in the last car, so you could hear the engine), and the conductor made another announcement that there might be some jolting as they hook up the trains.  Well, jolting indeed.  It took them three tries to get connected due to the cold affecting the couplers – the final try had them bring the trains together quite hard.  Thankfully, they warned us. That all took 15 minutes. After that, they had to hook up the brakes, and well, that didn’t go so well.  I would presume the cold was affecting this as well.  After the big jolt that got the trains to couple up, the conductor said  “ok, we need just a few more minutes to get the brakes connected and we can roll.”   Well fully 15 minutes later he comes on and says “folks, we just can’t win tonight – we’re having difficulty getting the brakes connected.  We hope to have this resolved soon.”  And another 15 minutes and they did.  So … now, it is about 7:20 PM.  I was supposed to be out to dinner with my son Brian at this point, enjoying my second beer and watching the Olympics in a sports bar.

We start to roll, and only go for about 8 minutes, quite slowly, and then roll to a stop.  You can hear a huge collective groan ripple through the train.  We sit for a solid 5 minutes and finally the conductor comes on and says “folks, there’s nothing wrong – we’re holding here for some other trains to cross on the UP tracks in front of us.  Due to our delayed status, we have no priority through this intersection.”  Which seems backwards to me but … I’m not in charge.

Finally we roll again and we’re homeward bound.  Because the train consist was now two seven-car Metra passenger trains and two locomotives long, we’re much longer than what will fit the train stations, so at the first two stops, only the last two cars of our train opened – the conductor was great about urging people to come to the back cars if they were planning to get off the train.  And those stops were fairly short.

At Buffalo Grove, where I live, a large number of folks board and exit every day – it’s the single biggest stop on this line.  At least half the train gets up and leaves there.  And the last insult to all the injury happened here.  At most train stations, there are two tracks and two platforms.  And the inbound trains run on one track and the outbound run on the other.  At Buffalo Grove, I think to help serve freight traffic there, normally, we both depart and arrive on the same platform – the one closest to the station.  At stations where they use tracks, usually, you have to wait for the train to leave before you can cross over and walk to your car.  At this point, I’m done, I want to be home, go to dinner with Brian and be done.  It’s 7:45 PM.  And so, time for the final screw up.

For whatever reason, they brought us in on the opposite track, and at this station, they wanted everyone that wasn’t staying in BG to get off our broken train and get on the good one so they could completely shut down the dead one.  Which meant everyone that wanted to just go home in Buffalo Grove had to stand there for another 20 minutes because the great big train was blocking the tracks while everyone got off one train and got onto the other.  Ugh.

Finally at 8:05, I was in the car and headed home.

So after-analysis:  I do believe that the quality of service of Chicago’s suburban rail service has become worse and worse. This agency has been part of political scandals, personal scandals (the head of the Metra board was being investigated for corruption and just before he was to be removed from his post, he stepped in front of a Metra train and committed suicide – this was about 3 years ago), there are budget shortfalls, political patronage scandals and more.  Thankfully, they ARE trying to raise their game – the communications are getting much better, they are starting to use technology more, etc.  But there’s getting around the issues that their rolling stock is antiquated and crumbling, their track infrastructure that they control is a mess, and the parts they don’t control they are an afterthought from CN and UP when those cooperative deals were sold to the public as Metra having priority.

And I have to rely on it to get to work.

It is what it is.  Beats driving.  But not by much anymore.  I know the guy who wrote the tagline “Metra, The Way to Really Fly”.

Well, not so much anymore.

As you were,


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