So there's this guy. His name is Muffins.
Muffins is fascinating in that he is complicated. He's difficult to understand, easy to misinterpret, a little bit mysterious and always kind. He is a canvas upon which people can project; different people can see him as being shtark or irreligious, kind or cruel, respectful or irreverent. But his own world remains untouched; no one can critique a world barred from access. It sometimes seems as though he is made of ice, completely distant and aloof, so far that no word could touch him, nothing harm him. To some he is intimidating; his verbal sophistication makes him so. To others, it is the power of his logic that is attractive; he easily demolishes weak arguments, often helping to clarify the thoughts of others. His manner changes dependant on the venue; he acts as is appropriate given his context. Whatever his role, he can wear it to perfection. This sometimes leads to others becoming frustrated by him, even wondering whether he has any opinions of his own, deeming him to be a person made of plastic, impossible to read and impossible to know.
It is because he chooses to be a private person that it is difficult to know him. It is his choice to share what he will; if he trusts you, it is an honor because he holds you in high enough regard to give you something of his that is precious. Such honor must be earned and cannot be forcibly taken; his trust must be given freely. He is kind to all, attentive and interested, a listener who is available to hear one's complaints and confusedly articulated cries, someone who walks the fine line between understanding and advising. At times it is enough for him to simply listen, to simply hear another person and understand and demonstrate to them that he cares enough for them to hear them. But at times, when he is asked, he works extremely hard to offer a solution to the person in question, to present them with different options and to help them see what the advantages and pitfalls of the scenarios at hand mean for them. He does not decide for them so much as lead them to a fork in the road and then explain the choices. The final decision must always be theirs.
He cares very much about people. He cares enough about people to respect them truly, to love them for being people and not for being notches in his belt, some kind of item that he can possess or manipulate in order to further himself. People to him are very real, so real that it upsets him when someone he loves does something that he knows they are better than; it upsets him when people don't actualize their potential. He desires to help people achieve their ideal selves and he does that through allowing them to explore themselves and their world, to understand their environment and the things that matter for them. He is involved in NCSY but for him, NCSY isn't about making kids frum. It's just as much social work and psychology nowadays as anything else; his goal is to build people up and help them explore themselves. An important issue for NCSYers is Jewish identity and therefore one they should learn about and grow into, but by no means does he wish to convert them to a particular way of life and certainly not his own way of life. Part of living is about not having the answers, not always knowing what comes next. He wants people to learn and to feel comfortable in joining him in learning; he cares about them and what they have to say. He doesn't need all the answers in order to do that.
He is patient. He is patient enough to deal with people he would prefer not to deal with because he is busy with other matters, but he is careful not to turn people away and to listen to them, to hear them out when they need him. There are plenty of times where he places other people ahead of himself, before his own life or whatever it is that he wants to do at the moment. He is even kind enough to try to fake it for others; there are times where he simply doesn't have the energy due to the fact that he leads an exhausting life, but he does his best to pretend that he can work it and he has the energy to listen and participate in whatever the people speaking to him wish. There are times that he pulls it off and the people never know; they come away with the impression that they are valued and respected by him, which is exactly what he wants to give over. If they are able to sense that he is faking, he answers them honestly and explains that sometimes he simply doesn't have the energy. But he tries.
When he does have the energy, he is intensely hilarious. There is an entire other side to Muffins, the side that the NCSYers see, this fantastic, zany, crazy advisor who runs around dancing in his socks, being slapped on the back or half-choked by his kids, force-fed by them before spontaneous ruach, the storyteller and above all else, Muffins himself. Muffins plays a character named Muffins in NCSY skits, a man who must develop a strong relationship with his muffins and who desires to winnow in order to do this. He is ridiculously funny, definitely one of the kids' favorites. Kids find his intelligence impressive, admire his logic and sense of presence and love watching him make a fool of himself. They realize that it goes against his entire demeanor, the sense of dignity which he possesses and can project and it's that contrast they love; here he is with a suit and tie and an entire attitude which suggests that he is a gentleman and yet he's dancing with them, his entire expression radiant, fed by the shared love and energy that exists between them. One can almost see the sizzling golden lines that link him to the others in the room, a web of energy with him near its center.
Muffins is a self-proclaimed hocker. He makes connections, forming them between himself and others, figuring out which people ought to be introduced to one another. This is something that carries through regardless of his position relative to others; whether he is working the crowd at shul or the attendees of a conference or open house, he shakes hands and smiles, giving the impression that he is interested and attentive and willing to hear whatever that person may say. His tone is carefully controlled and modulated; he always gives the impression of understanding, of having everything under control, that nothing can faze him and everything is proceeding as planned. Despite not enjoying extremely stressful situations, he can handle them well if there is need for that. He has phone charisma, is the sort of person who can capture people's attention over the phone because of his presence, his professionalism and charm. His business acumen is also lauded; he understands the steps necessary to take in his approach towards a particular goal and is able to come up with plans in terms of how to reach those goals. He has a very organized mind.
So who is this person who is by turns professional or crazy, controlled or energy unleashed, beloved by many and understood by few? What is he to me, what are his qualities and why do I respect him? What is it about him that I find so compelling? Is it simply the mystery or is there something more?
When I first met Muffins, I disliked him. I disliked his manner, which struck me as arrogant and standoffish; I disliked his sarcasm, which I saw as cruel and cutting. I watched him demolish people in the room and was displeased by the amount of power he wielded. I did not tell him any of those things, only thought them to myself and determined that I would not like him. It was only slowly that I came to know him a little, that I grew to know him and decided that whatever he presented or whatever I saw him as presenting was not the truth; he was not this cold, aloof creature who cut people down with his tongue as he saw fit but a very caring person, caring and loving and respectful of people, if not always of their ideas. He considers himself a skeptic but is a skeptic who has learned reverence; he does not assassinate people so much as he murders their ideas. Even then, it depends on the person and their strength; some people he leads gently until they see why their thought process is flawed or biased; there are others whom he tells outright, which may be initially upsetting but in the end leads to understanding. And he enjoys challenges; informed me at one point that I ought to challenge him rather than simply listening to his ideas and immediately giving in- or so I would appear to do.
I don't agree with all of his ideas. I think there are times where he doesn't see things as clearly as he should, where he's not looking as far forward as he can. I disagree with his methods and think that sometimes he is too harsh with people when he believes that he is only being fair. We are very different and hence see things differently. He once broke it down by suggesting that if people wanted something quantified and broken down into logically understandable parts, they would most probably come to him. If they wanted to understand the beauty or the essence of an object, they would most probably go to me. Another way to put it is that Muffins appeals to and thinks logically while I think experientially. At the same time, Muffins is aware of the necessity of understanding the experiential point of view. He goes so far as to take a class on Informal Education which is all about educating people through many different methods, engaging them in whatever manner they will find easiest to grasp. Informal education is a kind of experiential learning; students are handed the material in many different formats and forms, whether it be through a visual Powerpoint presentation or movie, through listening to a song, a group dialogue or discussion or some other form. I find it intensely amazing that despite the fact that Muffins very infrequently thinks experientially- for this to happen he must have experienced something profoundly moving- he understands the capacity of others to do so and would therefore devote the time and energy in order to allow others to learn in the manner that is comfortable and appealing to them.
What I admire most about Muffins are not his debate skills or his intelligence, his high-powered verbiage or logic. I admire Muffins' kindness and his caring, the amount of time and energy he invests in other people. He doesn't always do this by conventional methods; it is not that he necessarily physically spends time in other people's presence so much as that he is available for conversation, guidance or help whenever people truly need it. He is online frequently and there are many who benefit from this, having had enlightening and important conversations with him via AIM or the like. For me, it is very important that Muffins tell the truth. There are some people who would prefer lies, who like to believe in heroes and need heroes or to whom one must speak in language they understand, in which case it is easy to refer to them as leaders even if that is not the case. I do not deny that at first I was such a person and wanted to believe in people as ideals and idealizations, only as their hero selves. But slowly that fell away as I learned that I find more beauty in the flawed person, in the person who has their own passions that they must master, their own flaws and areas in need of improvement, than the idealized version who could lord over me due to their perfection. I feel like Muffins always tells me the truth, no matter how ugly a truth that is, and that he does not protect me from it because he knows that I need to know how to deal with it. But he does not make me deal with it alone; he is there to help me if I need it, to listen patiently when I am whining or complaining. And he is there to smack me upside the head and inform me that I have to make a decision; if I feel like doing everything, then I ought not to complain (he also uses very clear language with me; he was the first person to ever call me a jerk and lately shmata and sucker have been added to that list), and if I don't then I ought to take measures to ensure that people are aware of that.
There are times when Muffins has helped me, not only on a logical/ intellectual level, in which case he would help me put together the pieces of a puzzle that had formerly appeared not to fit, but on a more emotional level, when I was angry with myself and couldn't think of anything but that. It is surprising to realize the level of sensitivity that he has to other people's pain; he hates seeing people in pain. It would be a mistake to see him only with regard to his smarts and intelligence; he has feelings, too and understands them in others. In this particular scenario, I was having a particularly awful day and was very down because of people I knew whom I felt I hadn't really seen when I ought to have. It was one of those days where you wonder whether anything you do matters because it doesn't feel like it does; it feels like you've accomplished nothing and you never will accomplish anything that matters, so why bother trying. And Muffins understood this and told over the Starfish Story to me. There are many starfish that have been washed up by the tide and a little boy makes his rounds throwing starfish back into the sea. He does this one at a time and a bystander on the beach tries to make him stop, telling him that he will never be able to save them all, so what does it matter? And the little boy pauses to say "It mattered to that one."
"It mattered to that one," Muffins said, and he showed it to me so that I would comprehend. "I made a difference to that one." There is always a sense of failure but there is also a sense of accomplishment, of overcoming and triumph; the failures do not negate the wins. I may not make a difference to everyone but I can to those specific people that I touch, and sometimes that is enough to spread and cause a kind of ripple effect. If the world were created for the sake of one person, imagine what it is like to enhance or repair the world for one person. I made a difference to that one. And sometimes that's enough to empower you to move forward and take the next stop and sometimes it's not but at least it's there for me to think about and latch onto, to take hold of and understand.
I would be a very different person if I had not met Muffins. Muffins took the trouble and energy to invest in me and decided to try to show me a kinder point of view, attempting to persuade me that it is not people that I should hate so much as their actions, endeavoring to make me understand the power of people's environments and backgrounds upon their choices. It is not productive to hate people or even institutions; one can only effect change out of one's love for someone else, out of truly desiring their good and wanting to understand them and their point of view. There need to be conversations, a sense of dialogue; I have to want to listen but at the same time, so do they. Muffins led me, kicking and screaming, through a maze of mental situations until I understood his point and I am the better for having understood it and for realizing that the binary world in which I lived and sometimes slip back into is a cage and a prison behind which one locks oneself. It is he who said that people are people, that I needn't take it to extremes, that they needn't always be wonderful or ugly but simply people, with all their wonderful possiblities ahead of them. And he showed me a little of what he meant and allowed me to see through his eyes for a little and I learned, and as I learned I grew.
Things change subtly over time; relationships are fluid and shift. At one point I needed Muffins as a teacher and a guide but I've come to a point where it is not that I need Muffins so much as I want him, I want and respect his opinion and advice, enjoy his conversation, find him by turns entertaining or amusing, am astonished by the level of commitment he employs, can only imagine how tired he is due to the many functions he fulfills and many hats he wears. And so we are friends, or at least I hope we are, because I've learned so much from him and have only grown from knowing him. He's the Debate King and Casanova and has a thousand other facets, but his core personality features this strong commitment and overall passion for others, the desire to enhance their lives and allow them a greater range of knowledge and understanding. When he speaks to people he is motivated by what is good for them; there was one conversation he had with someone where he specifically asked her "And who do you want to be?" The goal is to create oneself, to create oneself as one wants to be and not a creature driven by impulses and passions they cannot master. Muffins wants to aid in the process by helping people find the tools they need in order to accomplish their own creation; like the assistant who hands the master the chisel or knife alternatively, who refills the palette or cleans the brushes, that assistant whose role seems minor or secondary, who even appears to be backstage...so too is Muffins. Many do not see him, do not notice his helping hand; he is subtle and quiet and people do not see that their paints have been replaced, their cups of water refilled. And yet his role is integral, what he does is the most necessary and beautiful thing on this very earth....
Muffins does not see himself as perfect. My initial perception of Muffins as arrogant was caused by believing in his projection of himself; over time I realized that this mask was simply what he had wished me to see at the time. Muffins can be very hard on himself, harder than he realizes; there are times when he blames himself for other people's choices or failures, things he wishes he could do differently, flaws that only he sees. He does not put himself on display because of his firm belief in the difference between public and private life; these attributes and aspects of himself are private and meant specifically for him. There are times where I fall because I buy into this projection; I assume certain things that are false or incorrect. Sometimes I am frustrated by him, or as a friend put it after I had done something particularly cruel, "You care about Muffins. You want him to do well and be successful and happy. You saw a flaw in him that you perceived as diminishing his drive and this upset and angered you. So because you care about him, you got mad at him for not reaching his potential, for not being his best." However, the manner in which I had done this was cruel because I had not believed that anything I could say would matter and it was only later that I learned it could. Despite my cruelty, he forgave me...
How is one to understand Muffins, how to rate and value the many things he does? Whether he is teaching Dominican public school students, organizing an event, dancing with NCSYers, learning over the phone, snuggling under his TJ Max blanket, discussing "Heroes" and "House," no matter whether it is exalted Muffins or mundane Muffins who is visible at the moment, he is still Muffins. Muffins is by turns funny and intense, amusing or commanding. I have been informed that he is also chivalrous and has escorted many a damsel in distress back to her apartment in Washington Heights, even making scrambled eggs with cheese for Jovo one night. He is this man who is gifted and talented, a beautiful person who cares so much, a loving and committed friend, someone whom I respect and admire and cannot possibly thank enough for being a friend to me. I treasure his words and ideas, want everything in the world to be well with him and only wish him the utmost good.
In terms of the Starfish story, what Muffins has done for me falls under the category of "It made a difference to that one." It made a difference to me and it still does and I laugh aloud sometimes thinking how different my life and friendships here would be if he had not reached out to me or written that first email, been the Man in the Yellow Hat for me. I am glad he did. I am so glad!
Today is his birthday and I wish him the most wonderful, magical day possible, a day filled with fantastic things and all that is good and may he be blessed and thrice-blessed for all the days of his life!
Because you see, he is one of the best people I know.
Happy Birthday, Muffins.