Eid Mubarak

Eid Mubarak everyone! I cannot believe that Ramadan is over. This is the first time I ever fasted for the entire 30 days, and it was an incredibly cool and rewarding experience. Believe it or not, I am sad to see it come to an end.

Let me explain. “Ramadan” is literally the ninth month in the Muslim calendar. In Islam, healthy adult Muslims fast from sun-up to sun-down for the entire month. Unlike in some other religions where fasting is a form of penitence, in Islam fasting is essentially about community, walking in the shoes of the less fortunate, and recognizing the blessing that is the privilege to have food on your plate. And of course, there is the element of obedience. You do it because it is what God wants.

I am absolutely not a religious person. In fact, for me God existing is at most a “good to have”, but with the sole and selfish objective that the spirits of my deceased loved ones are preserved after death. So let’s get this straight, I did not fast for religious reasons or for obedience to God.

So why Ramadan? I am married to a Moroccan. In the past, if I were in Morocco during Ramadan, I’d do as the Moroccans do, but I had never fasted for more than four days. So why fast this year? First, even though I am not religious, I have a huge respect for religion and believers, at least as long as they are respectful of others. I grew up in a mixed household (a Catholic father, Protestant mother) and spent more time in synagogues (for Bar Mitzvahs) than I did in a church. I also love tradition and want my children to celebrate our family’s diverse cultures. So we do Christmas and Thanksgiving. We eat loads of pasta (more than my wife can often bear), and we eat our share of tagine and couscous.

Now that my kids are getting bigger, I want to make sure that Ramadan becomes part of the family culture and that it is not seen as something that only mommy does. Furthermore, you shouldn’t think about Ramadan as a time of extreme sacrifice. It is actually a celebration, and I wanted that in my home.

Next, I wanted to make it easier for my wife because it is really hard to fast and enjoy Ramadan if you are doing it all alone. I also did it out of pride and self-defense. Pride in the sense that if one billion Muslims in the world can fast for one month, then I can too. If my wife can do it, then why can’t I? And by self-defense, I mean to defend myself against my wife when she says, “I am too exhausted from fasting to put the kids to bed,” I can say, ” well, I have been fasting too. You’re not that only one who is exhausted!” Unfortunately, I never got to play that card because my wife — believe it or not — in the 12 years I have known her has never once complained about fasting.

Finally, I wanted to know what it would be like to fast for 30 days. I wanted to know if I could do it, whether it would change the way I thought, and how my body would react. And guess what? It was really special. Here’s what I learned:

I lost 5 kilos (11 pounds), which I will surely gain back by Monday. I learned that your body adjusts to change over time, but that food and nourishment rule your life, from how you use your time, to your ability to think and work. How when you’re hungry you fantasize about food, and your fantasies are almost always of comfort food. It is primordial. While my wife dreamed of tagine, I dreamed of my grandmother’s meatballs. Not hot off the stove, by cold the next morning.

I learned how being able to feed yourself and your family is a privilege, and how not having food makes simple things impossible. How without food, my brain stopped functioning.  I learned that when you challenge yourself with someone else (in my case with my wife, but also with others within a community), you form a special bond.

Because I am not a religious person, I didn’t partake in the spirituality of fasting, but I can imagine that it is very powerful. Overall, Ramadan reminded me of Christmas where I basically celebrate for an entire month, but by Christmas day I am so burnt out that I need it to be over. Then I take down the Christmas tree, and am sad to see it end.

Now I am left with a wonderful sense of accomplishment and an increased feeling of complicity with my wife for having spent this time together.

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RIP Scooter Scaggs: There are 5 Fingers Pointing at You!

On Thursday, the incredibly loved and influential David Marshall “Scooter” Scaggs passed away after having suffered a rare form of early onset dementia that he had been diagnosed with in 2008. I don’t even know how to begin describing Scooter. He was a force of life. A husband, father, teacher, coach and mentor to so many of us young boys trying to become men.

He was never my coach per se, but was my first boss and champion. Scooter had been the coach of the very celebrated Woodward High School soccer team during the 80s. But more importantly for me, he developed and ran the Maryland Soccer School which was held for five weeks each summer at Bullis High School, just a short walk from my house.

How and exactly why Scooter hired me, I don’t remember. Most of the guys he picked were his Woodward players, went to Walter Johnson after Woodward closed, or were considered the county’s soccer All Stars. I was none of these. When my teammates Jim Geopfert (whose brother Rick was a counselor) and David Schwab were fourteen, Scooter tapped us to be gophers. Basically that meant we set up the fields for the day’s training sessions and games, but it also entitled us to hang with the older camp coaches and counselors.  These were people like Friedy, Devin, goalkeeper Tim, Steve K, Irv the Swerve and his brother Mike. For guys like Jim, David and I, they were our heroes and role models. We got to eat with them in the coaches’ room (basically the locker room), and play pick-up games during the lunch break with all of the kids cheering us on.

I was a very shy kid who always flew under the radar, so the fact that Scooter had somehow selected me to form part of his elite gang of youth soccer stars was an inexplicable honor. As mentioned, the vast majority of the coaches and counselors were not from my high school. That Jim, David and I were the only ones selected from our year was also very special, and we felt it. Furthermore, Scooter demanded a level of responsibility, enthusiasm and kindness from his counselors that was required to manage and motivate his campers. In other words, it wasn’t enough to be a great player, you needed to be someone who could handle kids from the ages of 6-14.

After two years as gophers, we finally graduated to full camp counselors, and I remained at the Maryland Soccer School every summer until my freshman year in college. When I look back at my formative high school years, those were the most memorable. It made my summers. I spent from 8:00am to 4:00pm with a soccer ball at my feet, and I started developing those first skills that have later defined me as a professional. I learned to be empathetic and use empathy as a key asset, to be part of team, to manage and motivate. And I learned that when you are the coach and you’ve been handed a team that you cannot fire or change, you need to find the best role for each member to make that team successful.

As mentioned, one of the biggest highlights of the day were the exhibition games played amongst the counselors. Another were the indoor sessions the kids would have twice a day to get out of the summer heat. In these, we watched films about Pele or the World Cup. Friedy would announce with great fanfare the first, second and third “stars” for each game, with the first stars winning the highly coveted blow-pops. This was usually followed by the entire camp chanting “Friedy eats quiche” (whatever that meant). Then Scooter would give us motivational talks, usually about the importance of team work. Here are some of his classic lines:

  • There is no “i” in team
  • When you point your finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you
  • Inch by inch, life’s a cinch, yard by yard it’s very hard
  • If you hoot with the owls at night you can’t soar with the eagles in the morning!

And then the silly ones like:

  • If the rain keeps up, it won’t come down
  • A buck two eighty

With Sam Debone at the Dr. Peppers Cup in Dallas

But Scooter didn’t do it all on his own. His family was always there, and he had Sam Debone. Back then Debone was the soccer coach of Whitman High School and the Wheaton Kickers club team, both of which were my high school and club team’s biggest rivals. Debone was another mentor. Knowing that I was loyal to my club team and couldn’t be poached, Debone nevertheless invited me to play for his team in tournaments where mine was not competing, including traveling with the Kickers.

In 1988, Scooter and Debone took a select team of Montgomery County soccer players to play exhibition games in London. I was asked to join them. It was my first ever trip to Europe. The following year I was again invited when they took a team to Nice and Cannes where I am pretty sure we played against Zinedine Zidane. You could say that those first trips to Europe had an incredible influence on my life. I ultimately moved to Europe where I have been living now for almost two decades.

Sadly some time in the early 90s, I lost contact with Scooter, his family and coach Debone. Nevertheless, I often thought about them. For example, I would go to a Real Madrid match in Madrid and think about the first professional match I went to with them in London (Chelsea vs. Arsenal). Or it would rain, and I would think, “if the rain keeps up …”, or I would see the word “team” written somewhere and immediately notice there was no “i”.

This past summer, I spent a few weeks at my parent’s house in Maryland with my wife and kids. I put my eldest son (then 6) in the Bullis Soccer Camp which is now run by Coach Andrés and the Bullis School. Coach Andrés does a fine job and my son loved it. But I couldn’t help to look around with a heavy heart full of nostalgia, searching for Scooter with his Soccer-topper hat, Coach Debone with his whistle, Anna and the kids, and all of us coaches wearing our yellow camp counselor jerseys. The camp no longer uses the old locker room where we’d negotiate which kids got which stars, play practical jokes on Scooter and Debone, or where those who played for Scooter would share their war stories. When I got home, I searched and searched for one of those old Maryland Soccer School jerseys. I used to have dozens and wore them all summer long. But there were none to be found. I also couldn’t find any decent photos of our trips to London or France.

But even without any good physical remnant of that time, on those rare occasions when I meet up with Jim, Rick or David, we almost always immediately go into rambling off our favorite Scooter Scaggs catch phrases.

So Scooter, if you can see me now, I am pointing at you with all five of my fingers. Thanks for believing in me.

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My New “Entrepre-Laywer” Blog

I have created a new blog, the Entrepre-Lawyer, which will be exclusively focused on my curent areas of professional interest (new technologies from the lawyer’s perspective). Here’s what I was thinking.

For both of you who have followed Grave Error for now over a decade, don’t worry, we’re still here!

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My 2017 Book List

With a really rough schedule this year, three kids, plus interruptions in reading due to other distractions such as the Serial and Undisclosed podcasts, I had a very fruitful year, finishing 24 books. Here’s what I read:

If I had to say there were two that I absolutely loved above the rest were The Sellout and Exit West. But  Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Thunder in the MountainsMen Without Women, The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, Mrs. Fletcher and Behold the Dreamers were all excellent, as was the short story “Five-Carat Soul” in the collection of the same name.

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Christmas Series Part 4: 100 Christmases

I love Christmas. It is special and joyous and nostalgic, often bitter sweet but always hopeful.

This year will be my grandmother’s 100th Christmas. I just can’t start to explain what that means.

Let’s give Nat King Cole a little lesson in arithmetic:

Merry Christmas to All from One to Ninety-Two One Hundred and Two!

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Christmas Series Part 3: The Songs

In Part 1 of my Christmas Series 2017 I wrote about the Islamic Jesus, and in Part 2 about Hanukkah and my healthy childhood for the Jewish holidays. But one thing I definitely preferred about Christmas over Hanukkah was the music. Hanukkah only had the dreidel song, but there seemed to be endless Christmas songs, each with an inherent sense of nostalgia and hope, which in the end are the cornerstones of the holiday season’s allure. So every year starting on Black Friday, I fire up my favorite Christmas songs, and ever since becoming a father, I literally inundate my home with Christmas music as I tell my children stories about spending the holidays with my grandparents as a child. Like with fragrances, each Christmas song immediately conjures up an image from Christmases past.

For example, now whenever I hear “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”, I think of those flights back home for the holidays during my first years in Spain. On the last leg of my flight, usually connecting through Philadelphia, I would listen to my Christmas playlist on those final 25 minutes home, starting with the Bing Crosby version of that song.

Whenever I hear the word “mistletoe” as in “some turkey and some mistletoe”, I can see the mistletoe hanging in my grandmother’s house. Whenever I sing, “later on we’ll conspire”, I think of romantic side of the holidays. When the Little Drummer Boy says that he is “a poor boy too” and that he’ll play his “best for him”, my heart — which is not religious at all — feels like a believer. And whenever I sing “our friends who are dear to us, will be near to us once more”, I always have an image of a cold and dark, yet clear night, together with my parents and siblings on our way to or from our grandparents in New York.

This year, I introduced “Silent Night” into my repertoire. Maybe it was a touch chauvinistic, but I reserved it exclusively for my one year old daughter, as the lullaby to put her to sleep. These have been my kids favorites this year:

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Christmas Series Part 2: Hanukkah

Part 1 of my Christmas Series 2017 was about how Jesus is also the Messiah in Islam. Part 2 is about Hanukkah.

My wife is Moroccan and from a Muslim family. I am from the U.S. and not from a Muslim household, so people often assume that religion would be a barrier in our relationship and in raising our children. But quite the contrary. What I always explain is that I was raised in a mixed household and community. My father was born in New York, the son of Italian immigrants and had a very strict Jesuit education, attending mass almost every day of his adolescence. He grew up in a very small apartment in the Bronx and was surrounded by the brown people of his generation: Italians, Jews, Puerto Ricans, Irish and African Americans. Meanwhile, my mother grew up a more middle class suburban lifestyle. Although her mother was a first generation immigrant, my grandmother’s parents were Swiss and integration was much smoother for them. She was a quintessential WASP, and my father was not. When they married, my father’s closest friend would not attend his wedding because it wasn’t in a Catholic ceremony, and at least as legend has it, my father was not the ideal son-in-law.

I grew up in a non-denominational and secular Christian household in a Washington, DC suburb. Most of my friends were Jewish. In fact I have seen more of the inside of a Jewish temple than a church, having spent every weekend at thirteen shuffling from bar mitzvah to bar mitzvah. When I was little, about the same age as my seven year old is today, I thought of people, not as Jewish or Christian, but as Hanukkah or Christmas. When you drove through my neighborhood, you could tell the two apart from how their houses were decorated in December. Christians had Christmas lights, and Jews had candles in the windows. I was always assessing whether it would be better to be Christmas or Hanukkah by counting the number of presents I got on Christmas morning to see if I had more than the eight my Hanukkah friends got. Plus, I loved potato latkes. My jealousy of my best childhood friend had no limits due to his father being Hanukkah and mother Christmas. He got both.

So what does this have to do with Christmas 2017? A few weeks back, my eldest son was pestering me about whether Santa Claus was real. I mean, he said, it just doesn’t make sense that Santa could deliver all of those presents to all the kids around the world in just one night. Good point, but: (1) there is a seven hour time difference between Madrid and our cousins in Texas, so he could make it; (2) not all kids are good every year; and (3) not all families celebrate Christmas. I then explained more or less the story of the birth of Jesus, the newborn king of the Jews in the time of the Romans. That Spaniards celebrate the three wise men or Reyes Magos, and that in Morocco where mommy is from, even though they believe that baby Jesus was the newborn king, they don’t celebrate Christmas. And finally, I explained that when I was growing up many of my friends were Jewish and celebrated Hanukkah, where they lit a candle every night for eight nights and for each night they got a present.

The look on my son’s face was the exact same look I had at his age. You could see conversion in his eyes. He was doing the math.

A few days later I announced to my wife that I wanted to get a menorah and have the family celebrate Hanukkah as well. We’d light candles each night and say a prayer. No, I am definitely not a religious person or even a believer, but how can you not be infected by the Hanukkah spirit when you see these tweets from my childhood classmate Leslie?

Tonight we celebrate the opportunity to remember the light of knowledge and understanding between neighbors. #Chanukah2017 pic.twitter.com/VY4t7x7ksJ

— Leslie Flaum Genna (@LeslieAlane) December 14, 2017

On Chanukah, we get together to fill our home with light; we also raise our voice in song to push away the night. Songs of joy and gratitude for living proud and free, songs that make all singers into one big family. pic.twitter.com/M1gxrgaRIr

— Leslie Flaum Genna (@LeslieAlane) December 18, 2017

The first issue I saw was where to find a menorah in Spain on such short notice, unless I went somewhere like Toledo or Cordoba where they sold fancy menorahs for Jewish American tourists. But reality set in when I proposed the idea to my wife. She suggested me that maybe I was going a little overboard. We had a Christmas tree that I put up on November 24th. We had stockings, lights, mistletoe, an advent calendar filled with chocolates, Christmas music was playing non-stop in the house, a failed gingerbread house, and I had already been cooking all of my family recipes from eggplant parmesan, meatballs, turkey stuffing, peanut butter cookies, and was constantly serving Moroccan tea.

I think she is right. At least for this year. Next year we can drop the gingerbread house and substitute it with a Menorah.

Shalom, Salam and Peace on Earth!

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Filed under Digressions, Living la vida española, Married to a Moroccan, Parenthood