Category Archives: Essays

Self-Promotion: New Essay on The Mid!

“As I felt increasing pressure about what I needed to look or act like, I longed to wake up one morning as a boy, throw on whatever T-shirt smelled the freshest, run a comb through my hair (or not) and feel ready to walk out of the house as Ferris Bueller or Marty McFly, convinced I’d be judged on how cool I was, not how pretty I looked. If I could not get to live that fantasy, I’d live it vicariously through my sons.”

http://www.themid.com/family/hair-apparent?u=tuJoIzgm84

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Flat Martini in Washington DC!

Thrilled to be guest blogging for the talented and hilarious Danielle Herzog at https://www.facebook.com/MartinisAndMinivans helping to chronicle the adventures of her good friend Flat Martini (he’s like Flat Stanley, only more alcoholic…) Check out our exploits!

http://www.martinisandminivans.com/flat-martini-returns-to-one-of-his-favorite-places-but-this-time-in-a-new-city/

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Hair Apparent

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As the mother of two young boys, I have resigned myself to certain standard operating procedures regarding their appearance, which, per their preferences, typically include a lot of Minecraft t-shirts, Skylander tighty-whiteys and socks with skulls on them. Although, once upon a time, I had dressed my first-born in collared shirts and plaid short pants, relishing the look of a daintily-dressed prepster, I have accepted the fact that as he has grown, his taste in clothing has became more contingent on a myriad of marginally humorous cartoon characters and video games rated ‘E’ for everyone, eventually passing along those predilections to his worshipful younger brother.  Subsequently, I relinquished my position as fashion director. Or, maybe I just got lazy, as my days of roaming through the Babies R’ Us newborn section, marveling at the level of adorableness that one can find in a pair of teeny, tiny overalls have given way to rushed Target runs that allow me to pick up milk with a side of pajamas.

The one facet of my sons’ facades that I have remained steadfast in my partiality is their style of haircuts. From the day my oldest son was willing to sit still long enough to be draped with a nylon cape snapped tightly around his neck, I have enjoyed the ritual of taking them both to the barbershop. I love the barber chairs. I love the buzz of the clippers.  I love the old, weathered picture on the wall of each standard haircut, as easy to select as a fast-food menu item: “I’ll have a #4 across the top with a #2 on the side”.   I love watching the line of boys and young men sitting patiently as their hair is clipped, creating a scene that could easily be a snapshot from a long-ago decade.

Perhaps one reason I enjoy the ceremony of such an establishment is it represents a recent exposure to a world that has historically existed outside of my own. As the eldest of four girls who endured home-snipped bowl cuts sitting on a wooden stool in my kitchen, I never had cause to frequent barbershops and each time I passed by the door of one, would peer through the glass and ponder.  Barbershops were for boys. Boys who didn’t have to worry about what they looked like. Boys who could get their hair cut short without being judged. Boys, who wore what was comfortable, said what was straightforward and did what was easy.

For me, there was always a perceived freedom in being a boy, which grew more profound as I got slightly older and suffered through typical estrogen-related tribulations: my first period, a training bra, home-perms and blue eye shadow. As I felt increasing pressure about what I needed to look like or act like, I longed to wake up one morning as a boy, throw on whatever t-shirt smelled the freshest, run a comb through my hair (or not) and feel ready to walk out of the house as Ferris Bueller or Marty McFly, convinced I’d be judged on how cool I was, not how pretty I looked. If I could not get to inhabit that fantasy, I’d live it vicariously through my sons.

While it occurred to me they may eventually demand more of a say in the length of their coifs, for the moment, I felt certain the young ages of my boys and associated disinterest in what was probably required to style their own hair on a regular basis gave me a few more years of having my way. This confidence was foremost in my mind as I brought my five-year-old son to the barbershop last week. His hair seemed to have grown in much more quickly than usual, which I attributed to the time of year (summer) and a gradual evolution in the standard haircut that I requested. In recent months, his tolerance for haircuts (along with everything else) had dropped dramatically and required an increasing level of bribery. Since the summer was only half over, I thought it wise to insist on a slightly shorter cut – less upkeep, cooler for the weather, etc, which I did fairly casually.

“Sure,” said the woman barber, draping a cape around my pouty son, “I’ll use a #1 on the sides instead of a #2. That will keep him until school starts.”

Ten minutes later, she brushed the fallen hairs from his shoulders and spun the chair around to face the mirror…which gave me a clear view of my son’s grief-stricken face.

“Too short!” he shrieked, crossing his arms over the top of his head.  The barber frowned even as I smiled apologetically and assured her it was exactly what I asked for.  Granted, it WAS short, but not quite boot camp short, and certainly not the shortest haircut he’d ever had. Still, the transition from a grown-out longer cut to this may have been a bit visually shocking.

“You look great!” I assured him, “Very handsome!”

He glowered and kept his hands over his head as we walked out toward the car. “Too short, too short, too short….” he started to chant as he climbed into the back. “I look bald.”

I rolled my eyes as I looked back at him through the rearview mirror.  “Dude, get over it,” I grumbled, “It’s a haircut.”

Over the next several hours, I attempted to soothe my son’s anguish over the new length of his hair in various ways, each less successful than the last.

“You look older,” I said, “You look like, almost seven.”

“I look old and bald,” he countered.

“Lots of little boys get their hair cut this short for the summer,” I said.

“No one I know,” he said firmly.

“You know Daddy has really short hair,” I tried, “You look just like Daddy.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Look, I’m sorry I had the lady cut it this short,” I finally offered, “I didn’t realize you wouldn’t like it. I won’t have it cut this short again, ok?  But, let’s move on, because it will grow back and in two weeks it will look like it did before.”

“I want to wear a hat to camp,” he demanded.

As much as I wanted to point out to my five-year-old son that he was not being reasonable and rational about this situation…..well, I don’t think I have to finish that sentence.

His major concern seemed to be that everyone at camp (both adults and children alike) would make fun of him for being ‘bald’ and I could not talk him down from this imaginative ledge perched precariously above an out-dated and clichéd nightmare. And although I knew his age would not allow him to intellectualize the absurdity of this vague fear, I had difficulty contemplating how a common boy’s haircut had created such a sense of anxiety and dread.

48 hours later, he continued to refuse to leave the house without a baseball cap pulled down tightly over the tops of his ears and I marveled at his tenacity.

“Did he wear his hat in the pool?” I sighed to the camp counselor as I signed him out the next day.

“No,” she smiled, “But he kept his arms over his head most of the time.”

As dramatic as my son’s reaction to his haircut seemed to be, I realized I could relate. How many first days of school loomed heavily in my mind as I worried about whether my new polos and corduroys would be shunned? How many times did I try to express my individuality (in seventh grade for several months, I wore a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker cap after reading ‘The Catcher in the Rye’) only to feel a burn in my cheeks relative to the number of snickers I heard behind my back. As much as I wanted to stand out, I couldn’t stand the attention that came with it. My son, who routinely expresses his passionate and creative personality within the confines of our home, but worries about fitting in once beyond the front porch, is obviously cut from the same cloth.

Eventually, it dawned on me that my pre-conceived notions about the carefree nature of little boys were naïve and sexist and my attempts to dismiss my son’s feelings about his appearance were unfair. As five-year-olds go, he’s proven he has more than a casual interest in how he chooses to present himself and within certain parameters, I am willing to support that…..Which is a polite way of saying no pony-tails or mullets.

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Self-Promotion: New Essay up on Role Reboot!

New essay up on http://www.rolereboot.org!

“If the culprit is nature, you must assume your anxious disposition or pessimistic temperament originated in your DNA and seeped through the membranes into your unborn child as you lay prostrate and pregnant, pondering the ways you might ruin her. If it’s nurture, you have surely laid the groundwork for his impatience and volatility by tapping your foot angrily while you wait for him to clean up his toys. Either way, you seem to have only yourself to blame.”

http://www.rolereboot.org/family/details/2015-06-has-my-perfectionism-rubbed-off-on-my-son/

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Self Promotion: New Essay up on The Mid!

I realize I should probably be promoting my work a bit more.  To that end:

Very excited to have a story up on themid.com!  Please check it out!

http://www.themid.com/family/what-happened-when-i-could-no-longer-say-not-my-department-at-home?u=unknown

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Mind The Gap

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As a child, I felt extremely fortunate to be spared the pain and indignity of braces. The indignity was perceived; growing up decades before the introduction of more discreet orthodontia inventions like Invisalign or lingual braces, my only associations were the railroad tracks cemented across the teeth of the poor souls I watched in the lunch room, forced to cut their apples and carrots into miniature pieces and denied such life-affirming foods as popcorn and pizza crust, for the love of God. I heard horror stories of night braces and orthodontia headgear, specifically designed to drastically lower one’s chances of being recognized as a human person, rather than as a cyborg with hormonal acne. I watched friends slowly drag out their retainers before meals, creating strings of thickly webbed saliva that grew and thinned until they snapped and remained hanging from the device, swaying in the breeze precariously until wiped away.

There was no uncertainty about the pain of braces however, which was made exceedingly evident to me through the tribulations of my younger sister.  Deemed orthodontia-ready by the age of 15, she was forced to endure years of what resembled tiny barbed wire fencing around the expanse of each tooth, and I wondered if it was painful to close her tiny lips over them, for fear of ripping right through the flesh. On several occasions, I had the misfortune of accompanying her to the orthodontist’s office to have her braces tightened, a fairly barbaric process which seemed to me not unlike the medieval method of thumbscrews, but on one’s gums. While I gratefully stayed behind in the waiting room, she disappeared behind the door of what was surely a dungeon torture chamber, which I ascertained from the sounds of metal scraping, gear grinding and anguished human screams that emanated from within.  My sister, who typically practiced respect and deference to adults, could be heard issuing forth a steady stream of obscenities, threats and general terror toward her doctor which included promises of making future appointments with him in hell.  At the end of the visit, I couldn’t tell who was more upset, my sister or the orthodontist.

Although it was gratifying to evade this brief phase of oral shackling, which surely would have compounded all the other anguish and agony of my adolescence; I was disappointed to discover a by-product of growing in my teeth naturally. A fairly sizable gap between my two top incisors. As a child, the only bother it bore me was an interesting sucking noise that occurred while I drank from a cup, but as I grew older and began placing more importance on my physical appearance, I couldn’t help comparing my mirrored image to a beaver or the Easter Bunny. I would stare at my visage while chewing on a piece of Chiclet’s gum, eventually forcing it with my tongue in between the empty space in my teeth to create the illusion of the missing enamel and think about what might have been.

Ever conscious of my gap, I tried to remember to always keep my lips closed while having my picture taken. Still, there are several pieces of photographic evidence from various school yearbooks that document an unintentional toothy smile; my front teeth dipping below my lips like the tiniest of sawed-off vampire fangs. Not the Twilight kind, but the Nosferatu kind.

As a bespectacled teenager working alongside several (slightly) older men at a bookstore in the local mall, I was introduced to the fairly absurd concept of my gap being a badge of sexual prowess. “Gaps are sexy,” I was told. But, the revelation was delivered more in the way of “I’m telling you that because you are somewhat nerdy and I hope it brings you genuine comfort”, rather than “And, now I will ask for your phone number.”

Still the idea of my diastema – the technical word for a space between two teeth – being a help rather than a hindrance to my overall appearance grew on me.  After all, Chaucer wrote of ‘the gap-toothed wife of Bath’ because of the connection of the physical characteristic with lustful tendencies, a popular premise at the time. Several African cultures associate gapped-tooth women with increased fertility and cosmetic procedures to create a gap are common. And, in France, they are called ‘dents du bonheur’ or ‘lucky teeth’. Perhaps it was finally time to ‘embrace my space.’

As an adult, I have more or less come to terms with my gap, though my thoughts on its allure vary depending on which gap-toothed celebrity I am told my mouth resembles. Madonna and Lauren Hutton, I’m fine with, but I was a bit more distraught at a recent comparison to Lawrence Fishburne.

Ironically, gapped teeth are currently having a moment and I can’t turn several pages of any fashion magazine without coming face-to-face with an advertisement featuring a close-up of a gap-toothed model; eyelids heavy and lips slightly parted so as not to miss the dark section of nothingness between her two front teeth. Regardless of the product being promoted – from eyeliner to dog food to lawn mowers – such a facial expression is necessary to bring prominent exposure to the gap – a clause no doubt written into her contract.

I am still routinely wooed by dentists who promise to ‘fix’ me.

“You know it’s going to keep growing, don’t you?” one dentist intoned ominously at a recent appointment, “The space, I mean.”

“Really?” I wondered how big it could actually get before becoming a small window into the inner workings of my mastication process for the entire world to see.

“Don’t you change a thing, sweetie!” his dental hygienist clucked, “That space gives you character.”

Being told my gap gives me ‘character’, which is often used as a synonym for ‘unattractive’, routinely makes me question my life-long commitment to accepting it as my fate.  Still, as I grow older and watch various parts of my face and body change and evolve, what remains the same (albeit imperceptibly larger, apparently) is that space between my teeth.  No doubt it will provide me with an amusing level of eccentric charm for years to come….Not to mention a superior level of spitting abilities.

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Like Mother, Like Son

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Certainly, one of the most peculiar parts of being a parent is watching the emerging idiosyncratic quirks that slowly bubble up to the surface of your child’s personality, especially when they seem to mirror your own. Here is a person – a separate entity – living outside of your brain, yet somehow seems to have absorbed and reflected so many of your own attitudes and inclinations. If the culprit is nature, you must assume your anxious disposition or pessimistic temperament originated in your DNA and seeped through the membranes into your unborn child as you lay prostrate and pregnant, pondering the ways you might ruin her. If it’s nurture, you have surely laid the groundwork for his impatience and volatility by tapping your foot angrily while you wait for him to clean up his toys. Either way, you seem to have only yourself to blame.

I was faced with this quandary yesterday when my nine-year-old son approached me with tears in his eyes.

“What is it?” I said nervously, my eyes scanning his body for bruises or bumps. Initially, he refused to answer and continued to wrap his tiny arms tighter around my torso.

“Tell me what’s wrong,” I coaxed, “I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s wrong.”

Finally, he succumbed. “It’s cello,” he admitted, “I don’t want to take it anymore.”

My eldest son, who has the vocabulary and sensibilities of a 40-year-old, refers to me by my first name and reads reference books for pleasure. He breezes through the advanced placement classes we enrolled him in two years ago, politely converses with older relatives and possesses a sense of patience with small children so profound, we’ve lately taken to calling him ‘the baby whisperer.’

“There’s something about him,” more than one grandmother has told me, “I really feel a strong connection with him.”

In some ways, he reminds me of myself at that age, especially when I see him interacting with adults or displaying a soft layer of sensitivity and empathy that one rarely sees in children his age. He has a strong need to relate to others and develop a rapport with everyone he meets. Sometimes his intelligence, coupled with his keen communicative abilities allows him the luxury of capably avoiding or abandoning situations which may require more intensive exertion on his part.

“You want to quit cello now?” I asked, “Look, you at least need to finish out the year.”

He shook his head. “I just don’t have the time to commit to it. It’s just too stressful for me right now.”

I couldn’t help smiling at these decidedly adult words coming out of the mouth of my diminutive son, who is routinely mistaken for a first grader due to his small stature and frame.

“You are supposed to practice 10 minutes a day,” I said, “That’s not so much, especially when I see you spending more than twice that on a video game.”

“But, it’s really hard. And, I haven’t been practicing enough,” he whimpered, his eyes filling up again, “And, now it’s too late to catch up and the teacher is going to yell at me when he finds out I wasn’t really telling the truth about how much I’ve been practicing, and…”

The whole web of deceit spun out from his lips, as he related how he had lied on the practice sheets the teacher handed out.  I was very familiar with these sheets which were designed to compel children to track the minutes each day they spend on their instruments, and I signed off on them regularly with the somewhat vague knowledge that I was perpetuating a deception, as I was fairly aware the 70 minutes he professed to playing on a weekly basis was less of an exaggeration and more of a blatant fiction.

These last several weeks of increasing subterfuge had snowballed into a critical situation for my son. The lack of practice was excruciatingly obvious as he dragged his bow painfully across the strings to emit a sound not unlike the rusty creaking of an ancient tomb door. I had been wincing in the other room listening to it right before he had first approached me crying. The cello, my son had obviously decided, was to be categorized in his head of ‘things that don’t come easily’ and rather than choosing determination and hard work, he was desperately trying to convince me to let him ditch it. By removing this current blemish of failure, he could again return to his accustomed reputation of perfection.

The simplicity of the decision he had made – never again return to cello class – to solve this problem was as satisfying and sensible to him as it was maddening to me. Not that I could blame him. Because he got it from me.

Obviously, I am far from perfect, but much of my life has been carefully constructed to avoid inadvertently revealing my analytic inefficiencies. Like many bright children, I became accustomed to being called smart. And, it was only when I excelled at something that I received that praise. If I couldn’t excel, then I didn’t earn the approval. If someone wasn’t praising me, then I felt criticized. And, if I didn’t feel smart, well then, I guess I felt lacking or deficient. And, certainly, that was one of the worst feelings in the world.

Scholastic and academic prowess had always been paramount in my house. No one cared whether you made the team (or even went out for it), but bringing home a less than perfect test score prompted the inquiry, “What happened to the other two points?” My father’s aggressively well-read intellectualism and broad grasp of politics, history and social culture was intimidating but inspiring, and I craved his praise, which seemed to be granted on occasions few and far between.  The thick aroma of mildew that sometimes hung heavily in the air of my father’s alcoved office amid the warped wooden shelves that held countless quantities of yellowing books in various states of decay was the smell of intelligence. Even so, my sisters and I learned quickly not to ask my father for help with schoolwork.  Instead of answers, you got a stack of dusty, ancient tomes, too voluminous to read and too heavy to carry back up to your room.

As a result of my perceived pressure to stay perfect on my own, I carefully avoided pursuits I felt outside my range of proficiency. I never pushed myself, never set my sights high on the horizon, never took failure as a learning experience, but only as a warning to remove something from my purview. My mother was only too happy to help me in this regard. I was given free rein to quit any activity that made me feel incompetent or frustrated.  As a young woman reflecting on my mother’s encouragement and sometimes even blatant suggestion that I give up on endeavors I found more difficult, I remember feeling angry that she didn’t push me to work harder, but today, as the mother of two young boys who would do almost anything to stop their pain or suffering, be it a broken leg or a hangnail, I find myself better able to appreciate her choices, even as I struggle to make different ones.

There is no question the value my father placed on scholarly achievements has been reflected back into my own parenting with my oldest son. It doesn’t bother me that he barely knows the rules of most sports games and has the slight and petite physical build of a spectator. The ease with which I watch him undertake most academic subject matters gives me a thrill. When his acceptance into the advanced placement program seemed in jeopardy, preparing an appeal on his behalf became a critical mission for me. I enjoy boasting about his scholastic efforts to friends and family, and although I try to abide by the current educational trend of avoiding the term ‘smart’ in favor of ‘motivated’ or ‘determined’, I have been guilty of letting the ‘s’ word slip out here and there. Perhaps the pride that I take in his accomplishments is a manifestation of the memories I harbor of my own – the strong need to outshine and out succeed – or quit trying.

As he stood before me, his red, tear-tinged eyes filled with anxiety and fear, I wondered whether he was more concerned about being caught in an embarrassing, lingering lie or if the pressure of needing to feel perfect was weighing heavily upon his tiny shoulders. Had I contributed to his angst? Had I laid the groundwork for a redux of qualities that I recognize in myself and strive to surpass?

For a moment, like my mother before me, I was possessed with the overwhelming need to save him from this cello-induced catastrophe. Call his teacher and explain why he must be excused for the rest of the year. Maybe I could blame it on finances, “I’m sorry, we just can’t afford the 12 dollars a month to rent it anymore,” or the psychological stress of too many after-school activities, “It’s either cello or Minecraft class, and he really loves Minecraft….” or even carpel tunnel syndrome, “A doctor’s note?  Is that REALLY necessary…?”  Whatever it took to remove this worrisome burden from the brow of my fragile first-born baby.

Instead, I took a deep breath and said, “Cello is not stressful. Not practicing and lying about it seems to be extremely stressful, however. Wouldn’t you agree?”

He nodded emphatically.

“I will write a note to your teacher to explain that you have fallen a little behind and see if there is a way to get extra help. In the meantime, how about we BOTH agree to remind each other about you practicing every day? Because I know you don’t want to go through this again, right?”

While I was not surprised by the initial enthusiasm that went into cello practice over the next several days, I was slightly bemused when it continued. A week later, on a night that bedtime loomed and the cello had not yet been played, I suggested he take the day off.

“You’ve been really good.  You can skip it one day,” I assured him.

He shook his head and picked up his bow. “I won’t get better if I don’t practice,” he said, shrugging.

And THAT, really sounded nothing like me.

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Jew-ish.

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My journey from borderline atheist to teaching first grade Hebrew School classes was a much shorter trip than one might expect.  But, rather than dwelling on the notion that I could radically change my thinking about my own religiosity, I invite you to ponder how easy it can be to alter one’s perspective and allow what might be considered mutually exclusive philosophies to co-exist within one’s brain.

I have always been what I would refer to as a ‘cultural New York Jew’. Much more ‘Woody Allen’ than ‘Fiddler On the Roof’. Growing up, I enjoyed eating bagels with a schmear and matzah ball soup.   I liked to say ‘oy vey’ and explain the rules of playing Driedel to gentiles each Hanukkah. (Or Chanukah, if you prefer.)  I had older relatives who used Yiddish words that have made their way into more mainstream vernacular; ‘kvetching’ about someone’s  sense of ‘chutzpah’ and occasionally helped me wipe ‘schmutz’ off my face, by licking their thumb and dragging it across my cheek.

My family would occasionally and half-heartedly observe major Jewish holidays, with less of a sense of tradition than a need to remind ourselves we were indeed Hebrews. Once every few years, my father’s family would host a Passover Seder which I looked forward to only in anticipation of the copious glasses of grape juice I would be allowed to drink during the numerous wine toasts that occurred throughout the evening. We celebrated Hanukkah, when we remembered exactly what date it was due to start, but typically ran out of candles, and shrugged off the rest of the holiday after we had exchanged socks or books, always saving the more exciting gifts for Christmas. (“We’re celebrating the Santa Claus part, not the Jesus part,” my mother would insist when queried.)

What I definitely did not have is a traditional religious Jewish upbringing. I did not have a a Bat Mitzvah, the rite of passage for girls aged 12-13 as they pass into adulthood. I did not learn Hebrew or the Torah.  In fact, I had barely been inside a synagogue by the age of 30, and ironically, any Bible stories I learned were smuggled into my house by my mother’s parents, both of whom had converted to become Jehovah’s Witnesses later in life.

The only official Jewish education I received was several years of attendance at the Workman’s Circle Yiddish School, a socialist organization more focused on culture than religion, which translated locally to weekly Sunday classes that took place in the basement of a Baptist church and featured age-inappropriate and nightmare-inducing lectures about the Holocaust, which we were forced to endure while munching on cheese doodles, a decidedly non-kosher snack.

Despite a sense of informality, I was content with my level of ‘Jewishness’. I enjoyed the notion that I was part of a minority group known for great New York delis, Catskill comedy legends and gesticulating wildly with their hands. Where I grew up in Westchester, outside of New York City, Jews were much more common, but even after I moved into neighborhoods where I became more of a novelty, I didn’t mind. I was different, unique, an underdog; a dark, swarthy ethnic ‘yang’ to the many blond goyim ‘yins’ I worked and played with.

My dating pool wasn’t limited either. After a brief, unsuccessful stint in a Jewish Youth Group during high school (“There are, like, a TON of super-cute Jewish guys there,” I’m sure someone promised me), I vowed not to let religion stand in the way of potential happiness. Who was I to discriminate against anyone based on their beliefs? ‘I’m O.K., you’re O.K.’, was my relationship mantra, as I took up with a myriad of Catholics, Protestants, Hindus and Quakers. In fact, as time went on, I began to downplay certain cultural mannerisms in order to better suit whoever happened to be wearing the suit.

“What I really like about you is that you don’t act Jewish,” a friend from my past once told me. “I mean I wouldn’t have even known if you hadn’t told me.”

Many people, like my mildly bigoted friend, believe that Jews are their own race, and in fact the Supreme Court would agree, ruling in such a manner for purposes of anti-discrimination laws in this country during the 1980’s. This would mean that I couldn’t separate myself from my Jewishness even if I wanted to. And, although my brushes with real anti-Semitism have been few and far between, I began to wonder whether it was because I didn’t advertise who I was as blatantly as I might have.

By the time I was 30, I was married to a non-Jew, living in the South celebrating Easter, which was as far off the map from eating knishes on the Upper East Side as I could be. I dutifully hauled out a few Hannukah candles once a year, corrected my husband’s pronunciation of Challah bread (“You have to feel the ‘cchhh’ in the back of your throat”), and made sure my son was circumcised (albeit in the back room of the hospital somewhere), but my sense of Jewish pride had taken a back seat.  I didn’t miss it per se, but what I did miss was the connection it had to my family, who I had left back north with the knishes.

There were many reasons why my first husband and I divorced, and not a single one of those reasons included religious differences. Yet, I would argue that our cultural dissimilarities made a significance impact on our relationship. I am a conversationalist, a debater, a ‘let’s sit here and hash this out until it’s been talked to death and we can move on from it’-er. I grew up in a family of shouters and yellers. My husband would happily let months go by without dipping below the superficial surface of small talk. He and his parents hailed from the land of ‘if we don’t acknowledge the problem, it doesn’t exist,’ a place where my passport had never been stamped. I thought of all my beloved yentas back home and I began to wonder whether my personality WAS more suited to someone who grew up in a similar atmosphere. Did I miss that slightly more nasal tone my voice took on when I talked to my grandparents on the phone? Would I be happier with someone who did that too?

When I reconnected with an old friend who grew up down the street from me, the fact that he was a Jew from New York was on my mental checklist of pros.  And, I had to admit as we began dating, there was a certain sense of familiar about the way we conversed, reminisced, and even argued. Perhaps embracing my roots instead of refusing to acknowledge them was indeed a key to relationship success. As I soon discovered, however, it’s one thing to embrace your roots, it’s another to have to grow new ones.

It was no secret to me that my new boyfriend was a bit more ‘Jewish-y’ than I had ever been. He had received a Bar Mitzvah in a fairly religious Congregation. He regularly attended services. He was keeping Kosher when we met and had even considered becoming a rabbi at some point. He didn’t celebrate Christmas – not even the Santa Claus part.

But, I honestly enjoyed the idea of being with someone Jewish. Celebrating holidays, starting traditions, eating more lox, and…..er, doing other Jewish stuff.   I even looked forward to hosting my son’s Bar Mitzvah – an occasion I had always secretly felt denied. And, like every other person since the dawn of time enjoying the first blissful months of a romance that felt right in so many more ways than it felt wrong, I was eager to compromise. When he proposed, I said ‘yes’ and his parents said ‘Mazal Tov.’

As much as I would like to end this story with “Dear Reader, I blew the shofar with him,” it soon became clear to me I had bitten off more matzah than I could chew. My new husband’s idea of Jewish family traditions included weekly Shabbat, holidays I had never heard of, Friday night services I didn’t want to attend with Hebrew prayers I didn’t understand. I sat in the new member section of the Reformed Temple during Rosh Hashanah, trying to follow along through the words and motions and felt as much like a phony as I had during any Mass I had attended on the arm of a former Catholic paramour.

My husband reasoned that I would become more comfortable with religious aspects of Judaism, as I became familiar with them. I did not want to become familiar with them, I reasoned, rather loudly, back, but eventually acquiesced by signing up for a new parent orientation at the Hebrew School in which we were enrolling my son. During the course of the discussion amongst the parents assembled there, some with more religious backgrounds, some not, some not even Jewish, one thing became clear – no one was there for the prayers. After several older men in the back admitted that they probably didn’t even believe in God, and I moved my chair forward to avoid any resulting lightning bolts – just in case – the notion that there were as many definitions of being Jewish as there were Jews settled over me like a thick comforting cloud of matzah brei. Many of these people were there for the same reason as I was – to hold onto that piece of themselves that they identify as Jewish and figure out how to help their children do the same.  Whatever that might mean to them.

Over the past few years, some of my ideas on what it means to be Jewish have reverted back to the way I was raised, with the understanding that many of my fellow parishioners might feel similarly. My husband’s ideals on the Jewish family he always wanted have relaxed a bit as well.  I attend certain religious services, because I know it’s important to him, but I will probably take more pleasure in planning the party at my son’s Bar Mitzvah than pride in seeing him called to the bimah. Two years ago I had a serious discussion with my husband about my desire to celebrate Christmas with my children, something I had not done since we were married. If his sense of Judaism was so strongly tied to the idea of traditions, why are my own traditions any less important? He agreed to indulge me, proving we’d both moved beyond our old definitions of what it means to be a Jew.

I still take tremendous pride in being a Jewish person and to that end, whether or not I was technically qualified for the job, I took on teaching First Grade on Sunday mornings. I enjoy reading and explaining Torah stories, but have been known to use the phrase ‘Well, that’s what some people think,’ when posed with a slightly more complicated religious question. Ironically, I’ve had less of a problem dealing with God in my classroom than with glitter-glue. Glitter-glue is pretty powerful stuff.

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Not My Department

Businessman holding up hand

I have long been of the opinion that domestic partnerships should be run like organizations, with clear divisions of labor and mutually-agreed upon but separate departments of responsibility. Any job that falls outside those departments should be debated and assigned, perhaps outsourced, or eventually pink-slipped. For example, I make school lunches for our children. My husband mows the lawn.  Cleaning the floors gets outsourced, though probably not often enough. And, after a couple of re-orgs, we pink-slipped washing windows.

Although it’s the hallmark of poor customer service, the phrase ‘Not my department’ is increasingly used as a valid explanation in our house, while our domestic corporation has evolved into an ever more sharply-defined conglomerate of varied available amenities.

“Mom, can you play a video game with me?”

“Sorry, that’s not my department.”

“Dad, can you help me find matching socks?”

“That black hole of a dresser drawer is not my department – ask your mother.”

Recently, a corporate cog has been thrown into the works of the finely-tuned machine that has perpetuated a stable level of relative domestic bliss, or at least kept us from a hostile takeover: my husband has taken a position overseas for a year.

Thus, temporarily, I am now managing ALL departments, and never have I been so keenly aware of the need for division of labor to maintain efficiency. Now, instead of passing the buck on tasks that do not fall within my area of expertise, I must add them to my project roster, investing my time and energy, with only a faint hope of being reimbursed at some future date.

Shoveling snow? Not my department…. until now.

Burying family pets? Definitely not my department, but not the sort of task that can be put on hold.

Dealing with frozen pipes? This is actually a new department – that apparently now belongs to me.

Catching rodents in the house? Looks like I’ve just been promoted.

In fact, these new pest control skills were put to the test over the past week; a project that launched less than auspiciously with the damning words uttered by my nine-year-old son, “I think I just saw something crawl under that door.”  I fought my initial urge to actually scream ‘Eeek’, like some comic book character and instead presented a facade of calm. After all, this was now my department. 

We determined it must be a mouse, although my son insisted he had not seen a long tail. Ironically, until their recent passing, we had been the proud pet owners of two large male rats; one would have thought my sons and I would have possessed softer hearts toward a tiny trespasser looking to take shelter from the cold. 

However, one would have been wrong.  “Kill it! Kill it!” my nine-year-old chanted, perched precariously on top of the dining room table so as not to cross paths with whatever was in our utility closet.

I immediately piled everyone into the car to drive to Home Depot (a destination that could not be further outside my jurisdiction) to procure the necessary tools for success – a two-pack of Tomcat-branded ‘snap traps’, guaranteed ‘effective, reusable and easy to set’. Sadly, none of these marketing promises were to be delivered on.

Although I was not previously aware that a dollop of poorly placed peanut butter can render a mouse trap ineffective, I tucked away this helpful tidbit of information for future use, or perhaps to include in my summary report when I transferred this position to somebody else, which I hoped would be as soon as possible. Several days, two traps and no mouse later, I began to wonder whether our guest had moved on to better accommodations down the street.

It wasn’t until that weekend during a visit from my mother, her husband and my sister, did the mouse make itself known again. Hearing a faint rustling from within a cabinet beneath the sink in my kitchen, I opened the door to reveal several small piles of rodent droppings….all over the fine china and silverware we keep for special occasions; occasions quite different than this one was turning out to be.  As I made a mental note to burn everything in this now obviously contaminated cabinet, I noticed a slight movement within my field of vision. A half empty box of k-cup coffees was shaking. There was definitely something inside it besides coffee.

Had I been alone in my house, I would have had no choice but to find a way to remove the mouse-in-the-box, likely by donning my rubber oven mitts over my husband’s heavy snow gloves over my own gloves and carefully placing the box into several layers of shopping bags and holding the resulting bundle as far away from my body as possible to be disposed of over the fence on my unsuspecting neighbor’s lawn.  Either that or permanently move. But, with other adults in the house, it dawned on me that I had another option.

I decided to outsource.

After my sister disposed of the box in the dark of my backyard – in a much more regal and sophisticated manner than I could have mustered – I was certain we had seen the last of the tiny trespasser. So, it was all the more frustrating when my sister informed me the next afternoon that she just saw ‘something slip under the closet door’.  “No tail,” she added. Could it be the same creature? Or a similarly handicapped friend?

Although I feared multiple trips to Home Depot within the same week might damage my reputation, we had no choice but to return for more ammunition. I was quickly becoming an experienced purveyor of pest control contraptions – something I did not plan on including in my resume. Along with the additional snap traps and high frequency sonar rodent repellers, I grabbed two humane traps, mostly to prove to my mother’s vegetarian, PETA card-carrying husband that I’m not a cold-blooded killer. 

My sister and I arrived back at my house to a scene that would have been comical were it not so rife with panic: my mother’s husband and my older son yelling at my bookcase. “We caught it!” my son squealed, and I realized they had trapped the mouse behind it.  Each time the mouse poked its quivering nose out beyond the shadows, my son barked it back. “Hey! Hey! Heeeyy!”

“Quick, get one of the traps out!”

The project had become an outsourced team effort. A team made up of my mother’s husband, my sister and my son. A team that did not require my full participation. I baited the trap, handed it over and took a step back. Any guilt I felt at not taking a bigger role in the capture of a small mammal in my own living room was superseded by the tremendous relief of not having to handle this alone. After months of overseeing all the departments, I was grateful to transition something to someone else in the room and take the equivalent of an emotional coffee break.

As if purporting some evil (but tiny) plans of domestic espionage, our mouse turned out to be a mole, despite the insistence of numerous Google searches that moles do not like to be above ground, scurrying about living rooms and nibbling on peanut butter. We reasoned he was confused, or perhaps was having an identity crisis. (“Maybe he hangs out with mice,” I suggested, “Or covets the life of cockroaches.”)

My sister and I took no more chances and drove several miles away from my house before freeing the tiny mole into the snow. Thankfully, we haven’t seen him (or any co-patriots) since. Unfortunately, without other visiting family members, I’ll be forced to take on the position of pest control alone should additional mice, moles, ferrets or small Chihuahuas invade.  But, only on a temporary basis.  Because it’s definitely not my department.

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An Unfinished Life

glasses

When my sister calls me in the morning much earlier than she usually does, I know there is something specific she wants to tell me, and I am proved right as she shares the news of the death of a successful young comedian and writer the day before. She knows his sister well. I am not familiar with his name, but I know why she called to tell me.

It doesn’t quite hit me yet as I talk to her on the phone.  “Oh my God, how terrible,” I say, “I can’t even imagine,” which is something that comes out of one’s mouth automatically when discussing these things, but I correct myself when I realize I CAN imagine, because it happened to us. And, then I think to correct myself again, because it happened to HER, our second sister, but I realize I was right the first time, because it’s still happening to us.

I google the comedian and read about his successes. Writing and producing hit television shows. Famous friends and peers. Regular columns on comedic sites and youtube clips of standup shows. I read his articles and watch his clips. He is hysterical and talented. A life to be envied. And I think what I always think  – what potential; how tragic; what an unfinished life.

But, I don’t really know him, and I knew my sister, so I think about her. Their lives intertwine in my head and I think about being his sister, too. His older sister. What I would have said to him over the years. How I would have supported him but likely lectured him too. How much I might have known and how much he would have kept secret from me, so as not to hear another lecture.

I look through a series of photos of him; the same ones cycled through and attached to the news of his death. He is ordinary looking, a little scruffier in some than others and his face reminds me of boys I grew up with. He was 30 years old – impossibly young to die – and three years younger than my sister was. He still looks like a boy. He still is a boy.

Briefly, I think about drugs, but not in the way I used to. Not in a critical and judgmental way. Instead I think about sadness. I think about anxiety and pressure and trying desperately to rise above emotions and thoughts and obsessions that are tiny thorned fingers digging into your soul and pulling you down into the dirt with them. I think about finding something that might take you away from that even for a few moments and how desperate you might be to hold onto it and hard it would be to let go.

I think about my own life and what gets me through it, and what a strange concept it is to feel the need to push myself along. I think about not enjoying life most of the time, wasting it, rushing through most moments to get to the ones that I have decided matter more. The next holiday. The next weekend. The next vacation. The next online purchase. The next glass of wine.

I think about being 35 when my sister died and not being able to make sense of it. This doesn’t happen to people like us. How did this happen? How could this happen? I think about blame and a desperate need to place it.  And the agony of guilt, which I wear comfortably like a pair of worn-in jeans. I am used to guilt. Guilt proves I care.

What could I have done differently? How could I have saved her? But, I already know the answers.

“There’s nothing you could have done,” says David Sedaris, after I wait on line to have my book signed.  During his reading, he mentioned his sister who committed suicide, which makes me think of my sister again, and when he notices a tattoo of a pair of glasses on my forearm, he asks about it and I tell him it’s in tribute to her. I comment that I didn’t know about his sister and say something about feeling upset that I couldn’t have done something, for my sister, which prompts his statement.  I admire his ability to not feel a sense of responsibility about his sister, or at least I think I do.

I watch my young sons and try to live in this moment of their innocence, when the hardest part of the day is finding a pair of clean socks. I think about their futures, their inevitable suffering and struggles. What am I doing today to shape their tomorrows? How can I stop their sadness and prevent their pain?  What mistakes have I already made? What mistakes did my parents make?

I think about loss. I think about the phrase ‘so sorry for your loss’. I think about how many times I said it before I could possibly begin to understand it. I think about how incorrect it is to use it, because it’s not just one loss, but a series of losses that happen over and over, every time a baby is born, or a wedding is celebrated or a vacation is enjoyed or a birthday is marked or hundreds of other tiny moments that might happen in between. I think about losing things like your keys or a twenty dollar bill that you thought was in your pocket. Things that might be found again. I decide to stop using the word ‘loss’ in the context of death from now on.

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