Monday, September 28, 2009

Numb skulls?

Sunday morning I went out for one of my typical early morning quick paddling jaunts: launch at Columbia Island and head up the river a ways. It's nice having a marina so close to home - early Sunday mornings it's under 15 minutes driveway to dockside.

Anyway, I noticed a lot of activity on the water as I headed past Georgetown. A number of crew launches out, and an endless stream of single person sculls heading up the river. Float markers everywhere. It turned out there was some sort of rowing regatta going on.

I made it up the river with no problem, but on the way back down I really felt like I was dodging traffic. I followed the DC shore to keep out of the lanes marked by the floats along the Virginia side, but that route had me crossing the sculls' launch trajectory and also put me right in the path of the maniacal racing canoes and kayaks from the Washington Canoe Club. Once south of Key Bridge I decided to get out of traffic by heading back over to the Virginia side and following the river side of Roosevelt Island. However, before I knew it a volunteer in a launch was telling me over a megaphone that I was in one of their lanes and had better get out of the way before the sculls got there.

I have no problem sharing the river and I love the fact that there's a whole community of paddling people who enjoy being out on the water. But part of me, I have to admit, was really annoyed at the way the regatta took over the river Sunday morning. I was out there for a relaxing early morning paddle but wound up feeling like I was trespassing. Please, rowing people, remember to share the river nicely with the rest of us!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Tashlich by Kayak


The Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashonah is one of the major events in a season that focuses on repentance and introspection. At this time of year we ask for forgiveness for our sins and try to wipe the slate clean for the new year. One holiday ritual, dating back to at least the 15th century is that of Taslich, or "casting off". Taslich involves physically casting an item - typically some sort of bread - into a body of flowing water as a way of symbolically casting off sins. This ritual has its root in the following biblical passage:

G-d will have compassion on us,
and overcome our sins,
He will hurl all our sins
Into the depths of the sea.
(Micah 7:19)


I guess I shouldn't even have to mention the biblical connection. Judaism is a legalistic religion. Every word in the Torah is assumed to be there for a reason, and just about all of them are interpreted as some sort of commandment. Let me just say that if Genesis 2:2 read, "and on the seventh day, G-d had a cup of coffee then rested", then over the millennia Jews would have developed endless rituals and regulations about how to properly have a cup of coffee before the Sabbath: what is the minimum number of ounces required to be consumed? if one has a latte, which is mostly milk but is suffused with coffee flavor throughout, does that satisfy the commandment? Is the almighty telling us to drink decaf, as the cup of coffee is followed immediately by resting? Furthermore, Starbucks would have been started by a Jew ... oh, wait, it was. But I digress.

Anyway, being Reform Jews and therefore somewhat (well, quite) open to adapting traditions to suit our modern sensibilities, last year I created my own custom: taslich by kayak. Why cast away your sins from beside the water, I figured, when you could do it from on the water? After all, doesn't a kayak-based ritual get you closer to the "depths of the sea"? Last year was a success and so this year, after my turn on the beameh (pulpit) during morning services during which I had the honor of reading the blessings over the Haftorah portion, Teddy and I loaded up our boats and headed to Fletcher's boathouse, where we launched into the Potomac.

Teddy hadn't paddled in quite a while and so I wasn't sure how much paddling he was going to be able to do. On the one hand, he hadn't been in a kayak in about two years. On the other, he's grown into quite a strong young fellow. So I started out easy. We set out on a meandering trip down the river, pausing to sneak up on turtles and just float along - as well as to do our Taslich ceremony. I wasn't going to push him at all until at one point he said "what are we doing? I don't feel like I've gotten any exercise at all." That was my opening to step the paddle up a notch and so I suggested we head for Three Sisters Islands, a trip of a little under 2 miles from Fletcher's. We had the current with us and so made the trip pretty quickly.

Upon reaching Three Sisters we were greeted with an amazing sight. The river was so low that large swatches of dry land were peeking out of the water around the islands. It was like the parting of the Red Sea (oops, wrong Jewish Holiday reference). We later realized the water was shallow enough that one could walk among the three islands, which is not usually the case. Teddy beached his kayak on the first island and asked me to paddle alongside while he swam to the furthest island. Now, 70 degree water is a little cool for my taste for swimming, but perfect for Teddy, who is in many ways a penguin. He scrambled around the Southernmost island a bit and then I accompanied him back to his kayak. Now, while I may have referred to "dry land" above, in fact the exposed areas above water were really soft mud. Ted squooshed in up to his knees as he made his way back to his kayak, and with a flurry of mud we got under way.

As we started back I realized it had gotten late - and we were due at a friend's for dinner. We'd have to hurry if we wanted to make it back in time. I must say, Teddy came through! He paddled the two miles back at a very respectable speed with no breaks. Being unaccustomed to the upper body effort of kayaking, he was worn out by the time we got back to Fletcher's, but he did it! We squooshed through more mud at Fletcher's (the low river level exposed mud by the shoreline there too), tossed the boats back onto the car and headed home with Ted behind the wheel. We made it back quite a bit later than planned but were still only 15 minutes late for dinner. Not bad.

As for the ceremony itself, the ritual of Taslich is pretty minimal. There's no set liturgy. We used crackers to represent our sins - small objects to represent a perhaps large set of sins, but then again, think of how much data a memory stick can hold theses days. I recited the passage from Micah, put the crackers on my spray skirt and then put the kayak up on its side via a sculling brace. The crackers slid off and with them, symbolically, our sins for the year. If only it was so easy ...

Friday, September 11, 2009

On the Boardwalk for My Mother

I spent part of this past week up in New York for the sad event of my mother's funeral. She passed away Monday after a long period of illness. The funeral was held Tuesday, which therefore started the official mourning period. The rituals and restrictions associated with mourning in Judaism are many, particularly during the first week, or shivah period. If you follow all of the rules you're pretty well forced to spend the week focused on the grieving process, since you basically are discouraged from doing much else. You're prohibited by tradition from leaving the house, bathing, shaving, engaging in any form of entertainment, wearing leather shoes (I have no idea why), and more. However, Reform Jews do some picking and choosing from among these rules. I refrained from wearing leather shoes for the first three days (said to be the most intense part of shivah), won't shave for the week, and am avoiding TV and radio, but I have left the house. In fact, I drove home from New York on day three - with the radio/iPod off, of course. My brother and I joked that it would be hard for him to adhere to the restriction on attending entertainment (which some people continue for up to a year) as he is by a Broadway musician by trade.

What does this have to do with an outdoors blog? Well, the morning after the funeral I found myself in my hotel room in Sheepshead Bay wondering if going running was acceptable within my personal set of shivah rules. Drawing upon the concept that applies throughout Jewish law that health takes precedence over all required observances, I decided it was. I further decided that I'd go running on the boardwalk at Brighton Beach as a tribute to my mother, as she loved the boardwalk - so much so that she and my father retired to Brighton in order to be able to stroll the boardwalk and enjoy the ocean. It had been years since she'd been able to make it the 3 blocks from her house to the beach, so I was making this visit for her.

Coming from the sleepy and straight-laced Northern Virginia suburbs, I'm always struck by the variety and quantity of life in Brooklyn. I hit the boardwalk about 7 AM by which point it was pretty crowded with people. Russian senior citizens strolling and young hispanic teens hanging out. I passed a couple of people doing strange calisthenics - things they must have learned in Soviet schools, or in mental institutions, or perhaps Soviet mental institutions. There was the guy standing in one spot wiggling his whole body like JelloTM. There was the fellow high stepping down the boardwalk like a storm trooper on ecstasy. A young Orthodox Jewish woman jogging, decked out in properly modest Orthodox attire. An older man in white support hose and bright green shorts: equal parts Gorbachev and leprechaun.

I ran from Brighton to Coney Island and back, about 30 minutes total. At the end of my run I took my shoes off and walked down the beach to the ocean. As I did some cooldown stretches by the water's edge, I noticed that there were some swimmers in the water on this cool, grey September morning. The beach maintenance guys were still out with their heavy equipment finishing their daily sifting of the sand. For some reason there were paramedics about.

My mother always reveled in the eccentricities of Brooklyn. I don't think she would have minded my morning run at all - in fact I like to think she was along with me that morning.