Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Meet me in Verona

Sig Other loves the opera.  He loves the music, he loves the voices, he loves the drama.  So when we found ourselves in Vienna for a night, staying at a hotel directly across from the Opera House, he immediately went about securing tickets to that evening’s performance of Rigoletto.  As it was high season and tickets were scarce, he was unable to find four together.  But the concierge did manage to find two pairs of seats in boxes directly opposite one another.  And so it was decided – we’d dig into our suitcases of shlubby travel clothes, put together an acceptable outfit and attend the opera as a family in style.

The Vienna Opera House is stunning and if you’ve never had the opportunity to sit in a box at the opera it is truly a special feeling.  Just inside the door to our box was a red velvet anteroom with its coat hooks and bench and mirror and imagined myself in the 1800s having arrived by horse and carriage and hanging my long coat on hooks before fishing out my fan and opera glasses.  Child Two and I took our seats in front, I showed him the little pop up translator box and changed the setting to English and we settled in.  He made it through half the first act before passing out on the balcony railing, heads in arms.  I poked him periodically to make sure he wasn’t snoring.

Rigoletto, Sig Other had warned me, has a complicated plot with twists and turns that are difficult to follow.  He’s wrong, of course.  It’s incredibly simple and sort of silly really.  It’s about betrayal and revenge and the love of a father for his daughter.  Sig Other tried to taunt me with his knowledge of plot as the end approached.  “Its so tense,” he said, “you have no idea what’s going to happen.”  “She’s going to die,” I said and he looked sort of crushed.  “Her father said that thing about dressing as a boy.”  “But its tragic,” he continued.  And of course she died.  And of course Sig Other wept and clung to Child One.

The thing about opera is this – its structure is antithetical to how I life my life (and how I do my job for that matter).  Opera takes something very, very simple and makes it very, very complex and overwrought.  Subtlety is thrown out the window.  It’s a teenage fantasy really.  A thought as basic as “You’re pretty” can turn into a ten minute aria and “I’m going across town to tell the baker” becomes high drama.  I suppose Shakespeare could be accused of the same.  I suppose a sonnet is really just a long, drawn out declaration of a simple thought.  But the truth is that the music of Shakespeare’s language is just easier on my ear.  The cadence of the well-written word is a rhythm I find more enjoyable. 

This is not to discount the EXPERIENCE of going to the opera. I will happily escort my husband on special occasions and when we find ourselves in cities boasting phenomenal operas.  I enjoy the architecture and the feeling of being thrust back to another era.  And the idea of attending La Scala in black tie is truly marvelous.  Its just that I find my editorial instincts taking over and wondering why “I love you” couldn’t be said in a shorter amount of time.  I find myself thinking a truly complicated plot could justify three full acts and my mind drifts to how those women sing in those tight corsets and why all opera singers are a little hefty.  And then to this: when the man says, “dress as a boy and meet me in Verona” you know bad things will happen.  

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Railway in Birkenau

Photo credit: Sig Other


It’s the stairs I’m struck by.  From the first floor to the second, they’re terribly worn - warped and wobbly from years of use.  We’re walking through the barracks and around the grounds of Auschwitz and I’m struck not by the numbers or the stories but by the stairs.  Auschwitz is made of three parts: the original camp which was a former Polish army base, Birkenau which was built exclusively as an extermination camp and Auschwitz 3, the labor camp, which no longer exists.

As we travel from Auschwitz and Birkenau I ask about the stairs.  I worry I’m not clear – I don’t know how to ask what I want to know.  Agnieska, our young Polish guide, understands immediately.  The wear, she tells me, is not from the footsteps of concentration camp victims – she knows that’s what I was thinking.  It is not from any of the 80,000 shoes that represent a mere fifth of those who perished.  The wear is from the shoes of visitors.  “Remember,” she tells me, “the victims were here only five years.  Visitors have been coming for over sixty.”  Millions of feet stepping where victims stepped – tens of millions of visitors tracing the footsteps of one million victims – tracing but not fully getting the picture.  I find comfort in the wear of the stairs of Auschwitz – comfort in the familiarity of dips and grooves.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe its knowing that so many have come to see – so many have come to try to understand – so many have come to remember.  Or maybe it’s just that I fixate on the worn stairs and find comfort in the familiar amidst the unfathomable. 

Agnieska doesn’t go into the room with 80,000 pairs of shoes.  It’s the thing she cannot tolerate.  The display of shoes, to her, is the most upsetting sight.  It isn’t the shoes that bother me.  It’s the wax.  Across the hall from the shoes is another room with a display of brushes and combs on one side and a case holding tins and tins of wax and shoe polish.  Shoe polish is something you take with you when you believe you are leaving home to build a life elsewhere – to live in a place where you want to look presentable, build a new community, celebrate family birthdays and anniversaries and weddings.  Shoe polish is not something you take with you when you believe you are leaving home to die. 

I ask Agnieska about herself – how she chose this job.  I know she is not a Jew and I am struck by her youth – such a young woman to choose such a serious job.  Her grandmother, she says, was sent to a labor camp in Germany during the war.  As a girl, Agnieska would listen to her grandmother’s stories and became obsessed with the holocaust and so she studied history and Hebrew and became a guide so that the stories would continue.  She speaks with great pride about her country – about the Polish people and how they suffered during the war.  The camps, she is quick to point out, were not just for Jews.  The Poles were the first prisoners of Auschwitz along with a few hundred Jewish intellectuals.  As she speaks we walk slowly down the gravel road of Birkenau and snow begins to fall.    

The barracks of Birkenau are lined up in neat rows, as they would be in any army base.  They’re made of brick or wood.  Row upon row of standing barracks followed by row upon row of ruins – skeletons of chimneys and outlines of buildings that once were - all precisely stacked up on either side of the long road to death.  Past that, the woods – dense and beautiful – a sharp contrast to the haunted foreground.  It is stunning in its simplicity, in its austerity, in its quiet. There are no signs blinking “death to the Jews”, no splashes of blood on the walls, no emaciated skeletons reaching from the dark.  There are only barren buildings, scant photographs and the chill wind whistling between buildings once stuffed with humanity waiting for extinction.  It is the familiar of this place that is so striking - the absolute everydayness of it.   Sig Other notes that it is shockingly ordinary.  Without thinking, I say it is actually beautiful in a way.  He looks at me funny and walks on.  I feel odd, using that word in this place.  But it is, in a way.  Or rather, stunning.  It is orderly and ordinary and stunning in its simplicity.

Auschwitz does not bring you to your knees in the moment.  There were no tears shed as I walked the long road that runs parallel to the railway track that leads from the entry gate of Birkenau to the memorial erected between the ruins of the gas chambers number two and three.  Auschwitz sneaks up slowly – etching itself indelibly in your brain and cutting deep into your chest where it lives forever as a haunting memory of lives not lived.  

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Hail to the Snotty Chief

I marvel at the brilliance that is seventeen.  Seventeen means you can drive yourself, it means you can drive your siblings and your friends, it means you are old enough to self-regulate to a certain extent.  Seventeen is accompanied by a fair amount of adult freedom and responsibility.  It is also accompanied by a fair amount of insecurity and uncertainty and the emotional swings that come with adolescence. 
Our seventeen year old, our Child One, has all of these things.  She has lot of that adult freedom.  She’s incredibly responsible and she comes and goes as she pleases.  But she is not adult.  She can’t vote.   She can’t drink (not that she wants to).  She is still, legally, a minor.  Seventeen, I’m often reminded in spite of her poise and maturity, is still quite young.  Take, as case in point, a moment with her earlier this week. 

Child One had given a brilliant speech at a fancy Beverly Hills fundraiser a week prior.  She was a little nervous.  Her voice was maybe pitched a bit higher than normal.  She held her head maybe a little more awkwardly than she might otherwise.  But only those of us who know her best were aware of any of these flaws.  The rest of the room saw her as brilliant and articulate and composed – a performance belying her few years – a performance worthy of a well-educated, secure adult.  After her speech, several admirers approached – people who had never met her before – people impressed by her ability to speak with such command at so young an age.  One man, a rather wealthy and powerful businessman, asked her where she intended to apply to college.  And then he told her she could do anything – he told her she could be the next President of the United States.

This may seems silly – a grand statement from a complete stranger to such a young girl after hearing one speech on a Wednesday night in a ballroom in Beverly Hills.  But the man meant it.  And why not, really?  Why shouldn’t Child One be anything she wants to be, even the President of the United States? 

The excitement of her speech behind her, Child One re-engaged in the rigor of her daily life - she continued to obsess about schoolwork and SATs and college apps and internship and her senior project.  Bedtime continued to come too late and mornings began too early and as anyone who lives a busy life can tell you, Child One started to break down.  It started with a stuffy nose and deteriorated to a low grade coldy/flu bug.  Our brilliant, strong, vibrant girl turned into a weak, sleepy, snotty little kitten. 

And then last night, after anxious tossing and turning, after hours of organizing and re-organizing and sheep counting and white noise, Child One succumbed to the adolescent side of her seventeen year old self.  Child One did, as she had when she was a tiny girl, what every small child does when they can’t self-soothe – when they can’t put themselves to sleep.  Child One crept into our room at 3am and crawled into bed next to Sig Other.  “I can’t sleep,” I heard her say.  “Shhhh,” Sig Other soothed, patting her head, “stay here and I’ll put you to sleep.”  Within three minutes, Child One was snoring soundly.  So there we were – me, Sig Other, Beta Dog and Child One – all jammed into bed together.  I knew that Sig Other wasn’t asleep – I knew he was trapped in an awkward twist, one arm under Child One, one around her back but neither moving so as not to wake the sweet girl.  And I certainly wasn’t asleep, kept awake by the drone of the buzzsaw of Child One’s snotty snore.  But neither of us would speak, lest we wake the sleeping child.  And so I looked across the bed, past sleeping Beta Dog, past wakeful Sig Other and over at the now blissful Child One and I thought to myself, “oh look – there she is – the future President of the United States.”

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Ground Control to Major Domo...

I love rich people.  I don’t mean people who are financially secure or people who don’t worry about paying for college or retirement or even people who have more than one home.  I mean really rich people.  The kind of people with staff.  Not nanny or housekeeper staff.  But full-time, round the clock, take care of everything staff.  The kind of people who have a major domo.  I met one of those people the other night at a dinner party meant as a social networking function for business women.  I pulled into a fancy property through a fancy gate, handed my car off to a well-dressed valet and was met by a suited gentleman who introduced himself as “the Major Domo of the household” before whisking my coat and handbag away to a closet the size of my bedroom. 

Major Domo.  Sig Other’s fantasy – someone to organize the house, keep the pantry well-stocked, fix the little heres and theres that fall apart, stop working or otherwise fail to function at their highest capacity, someone to bathe and care for the beasts and finally, to bring Sig Other coffee and the paper in bed.  The latter task we sorta figured out.  The papers arrive via internet onto Sig Other’s bedside companion, the iPad.  And most days (though I confess not EVERY day) coffee is delivered to him in bed by yours truly with a smile and a little dance.  In fact, most tasks on the list of things that would be otherwise handled by the Major Domo are, in fact, handled by me.  This is not to say I am without help.  It would be ludicrous to suggest that I work full time AND manage to do every household task on my own.  I have housekeepers and a gardener and pool man and even a part time assistant (though I desperately miss my last household assistant who doubled as a brilliant manny to Child Two – he was as good at Rock Band and Halo as running errands). 

And yet I still consider it a great failing of my personal and professional life that I have no truly rich friends – no friends to offer up their vacation homes or whisk us away on the jet to their Mediteranean-moored yacht or private Italian villa.  I’m not entirely sure how I’ve managed twenty plus years in a city full of rich people and have not one single stinking rich friend.  Don’t get me wrong.  I know some rich people.  I’ve been invited to some rich peoples’ houses.  But I don’t have any friends who are truly rich.  Truly, sick money, filthy nasty full-time staff rich.  Child One has failed us in this manner.  She has lovely friends from her fancy private school.  But none of them has fancy rich parents.  None of them have vacation homes that they want to invite us to so we can all spend grand holidays together in exotic locales with delicious food and indulgent wines.  Child Two has failed us as well on this front as he is simply not terribly social. 

But lately, it doesn't seem to matter much.  Lately, Sig Other and I have reasoned that we would be, in fact, very bad house guests.  We’ve realized that being guests in someone else’s home, no matter how fancy, is not actually our idea of a good time.  We like hotels where there is room service and maid service and a certain level of assumed privacy.  And we like our own home where there is actual privacy.    So the idea of really rich friends with fancy vacation homes may be a terrific fantasy, but in practice would serve us not at all.  A major domo on the other hand…

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Soldier of Fortune

Child two is a killer. Well, not really. But he, like many boys his age, has a penchant for guns and martial arts and first person shooter video games and all things violent. He does karate three days a week.  He’s a purple belt and works with a bowstaff. And every Sunday, Child Two plays a vicious day-long game of paintball at a place called “Field of Fire”.  Field of Fire lives just off the I-5 near places like Magic Mountain and that horrid place the boy had his birthday party with bad pizza and worse ice cream and lots of video games and go-carts.  But Field of Fire is not a place of kiddie parties and ice cream cones.  Real men go there.  Real men who drive real trucks and come to the game fully loaded with gear and guns and team t-shirts that say things like “Hitmen” and “Hellfire”.  And Child Two loves its.

Child Two, in his Monday through Saturday life, is the same gentle, sweet boy he always was.  Nothing has changed in his general persona.  He is still kind.  He is still thoughtful.  He is still smarter than the average bear.  And he is still a wee bit socially awkward.   He’s a little shy really.  And sort of dreamy.  When he was a very small boy he would stand on the soccer field mid-game and sort of stare into the sky.  Zoning out?  Maybe.  But Ex-Wife and I preferred to think he was thinking Deep Thoughts.  Now that he’s older he spends his weekdays diligently attending to homework and engaging in his Hebrew studies.

But on Sundays he transforms.  On Sundays, he becomes a well-armed, well-prepared soldier on the battlefield of paintball strategy.  On Sundays, he becomes “Nate Dog.”  I didn’t know about “Nate Dog” until I did drop off a few Sundays ago.  Ex-Wife has bourne the burden of drop-off for the past few months but there was a day she was unavailable and so Child Two asked, albeit sheepishly, about whether I could take him.  “I know you don’t approve,” he started, “but would you consider taking me to paintball this weekend?”  SO sweet was the request, so innocent and wide eyed that I could do nothing but agree to ferry the sweet boy to his favorite weekend activity. 

Sunday morning arrived, boy geared up and we hopped in the car and headed north.  We arrived at the land of paint and honey bright and early.  The theme from “Deliverance” popped into my head and involuntarily out of my mouth as we swung onto the dirt road leading to the parking lot.  Child Two chided me and shook his head.  “It isn’t a redneck sport,” he said, although I’m not sure he knows what that means.  I pulled up between two rugged Ford trucks and Child Two hopped quickly out of the car, grabbed his bags of gear and ammo, and sauntered immediately off in the general direction of the slowly gathering crowd.

I noticed he wasn’t particularly interesting in me hanging around – in fact, he was sort of ignoring me.  And I noticed that rather than place his bags of gear on the tables set up for gamers, he swung them onto the back of a bright yellow truck made dim by mud and gave a nod of greeting to the man – the grown man – who was clearly the truck’s owner and was, in that moment, seriously engaged in donning pads and protective gear and cleaning his guns and laying out ammo for the day’s battles.  “Hey Nate-Dog,” the man nodded, “wassup?”  Child Two – whom I had never heard referred to as “Nate” and is most certainly NOT a Nate-Dog in my book – merely nodded a “hey” and proceeded to join the man in his war prep efforts.

I walked over to the shack to sign waivers that release the battlefield purveyors of any liability and then went over to say goodbye.  “Bye,” he said, barely looking up.  He didn’t want me to stay.  He didn’t really want to acknowledge that he’d been dropped off by a parent at all.  He didn’t need me.  My heart, in that moment, cracked a tiny bit and soared all at the same time.  Child Two was growing up.  Child Two would no longer be the boy who needed a parent around all the time.  Child Two was becoming a young man who had figured out a place for himself in a world of men – a strange world of men but a world, nonetheless.  I drove off, humming the tune from Deliverance and smiling to myself ever so slightly.

Last weekend I dropped the boy off again, this time with two of his friends.  They’re teenagers, older than Child Two by a few grades and awkward in the way adolescent boys on the brink of manhood are.  The teenagers were greeted by the burly crowd with a “look there, the girls are back in town.”  But my boy got a nod of respect, a rub of the head and a “Hey Nate-Dog, wassup?”

We tease Child Two that he's in training to become a soldier of fortune. That paintball and karate will combine to provide a skillset most useful to a mercenary.  Not a bad business, perhaps, in this modern world.  The irony, of course, is that his sister is thinking of majoring in human rights. Sig Other and I fantasize about a future where brother and sister meet on the battlefield – Child Two the strategic leader of men fighting to protect an oppressed people, and Child One as an aide worker or war correspondent covering the event.  They will reunite and hug and laugh as they did as small children, and then go on to continue the fight – each in their own way. 

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sing Like You Really Mean It...

Growing up, I never really understood why people went to church although everyone I knew did.  I thought it was perhaps because they felt guilty.  I grew up in a neighborhood of Catholics and Mormons and Born Again Christians. So I assumed they were all going to church on Sunday to confess, to take communion and to be absolved of the guilt of their bad behavior from the previous week.  And this may have been true.  For some of them.  But it may also have been true that some of them went to church for reasons having nothing to do with guilt or bad behavior or obligation.  Maybe some of them went to church because they just liked it.

Lately I’ve been going to temple every week.  It started because Child Two has Hebrew school on Saturdays.  In the beginning, Sig Other would drop the boy off and go for his morning ride. But every now and then, Sig Other would have a conflict and I would do the drop off.  Child Two is just a little boy (though he’s almost as tall and certainly outweighs me by now) and I so felt it right to walk him in.  And once in a while, I felt compelled to stay a while. 

Week after week I’d go for drop off.  And once in a while turned into more often than not.  And I’d end up staying.  At first it was just an hour.  Then it was two and then longer and then time and time again I’d find myself staying for the whole service.  Temple on a Saturday morning can be fun.  It’s terribly social.  There’s tea and sometimes snacks and often a group of folks sitting around outside chatting and avoiding the services entirely.  And sometimes I’ll join them.  Sometimes I’ll mill back and forth between the inner and outer worlds.  But lately, more often than not, I find myself hunkering down.  Lately, more often than not, I find myself really engaging – following along and yes, even singing like I really mean it.

For most of my life, I made fun of people who sing like they mean it.  It was a joke to me.  “Oh,” I’d say when being told about someone earnest, “does she close her eyes when she sings?  Does she sing like she really means it?”  To me, singing like you mean it indicated a kind of weakness.  Singing like you really mean it was for people whose hearts bled, who were evil do-gooders, who looked right in your eyes when they spoke and pledged sincerity at all times.  Those people, I was convinced, lacked irony.  They didn’t share my innate cynicism.  They were, I decided, simple. 

But here’s where it gets kind of messy.  Here’s where inherent cynicism clashes with conventional action.  Standing in synagogue, joining a congregation with voices lifted in song can be moving – can transport me to a place of deep emotion – to a place some people could call – even I would perhaps call “spiritual”. 

I hate to admit – I hesitate to bend to definition I would find abhorrent, but the truth is there are times I find standing in temple, singing with a group of people sort of spiritual.  I sing in Hebrew – I don’t really know the words or what they mean – but I’ve heard them so often now I can sing a transliterated version of prayers and understand they all basically say the same thing – God is great, God is fabulous, God should be held in awe.  And I sing and I know I don’t hold these beliefs in the literal sense of the word but I do feel something – I feel transported, I feel elevated and moved and deeply emotional.  I feel like I’m praying. 

Praying.  What does that mean.  Here’s what Wikipedia says about prayer:

Prayer is a form of religious practice that seeks to activate a volitional connection to a god or spirit through deliberate practice. Prayer may be either individual or communal and take place in public or in private. It may involve the use of words or song. When language is used, prayer may take the form of a hymn, incantation, formal creedal statement, or a spontaneous utterance in the praying person. There are different forms of prayer such as petitionary prayer, prayers of supplication, thanksgiving, and worship/praise. Prayer may be directed towards a deity, spirit, deceased person, or lofty idea, for the purpose of worshipping, requesting guidance, requesting assistance, confessing sins or to express one's thoughts and emotions. Thus, people pray for many reasons such as personal benefit or for the sake of others.

AH HAH!!!  That’s it.  I stand in shul and close my eyes and sing like I really mean it because I’m PRAYING.  And it’s ok to pray even though I can’t say for sure that I believe in God.  It’s ok to pray even though I may not be praying to God at all.  Maybe I'm praying to connect to a lofty idea.  Maybe I'm praying to confess or to express a thought or emotion.  Maybe it doesn't matter at all why i'm there as long as I know that it really is ok to sing with my eyes closed – to sing like I really mean it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Last Tango in... Auschwitz?

Sig Other and I like to travel abroad on Thanksgiving.  Very few Americans are willing to give up their turkey and football and stuffing and pie and leave the country over the Thanksgiving holiday.  Americans are definitely traveling then.  But they’re flying to Detroit or Atlanta or Peewaukie or Portland.  No one expects Americans to leave the country during the four blessed days of patriotic celebration.  We’re meant to be stateside, snug in our fireplace-fueled homes stuffing our faces with dry bird, constipating stuffing and oversweet tubers topped with sticky sweet sugars.  We’re not expected to be in Marrakesh or Paris or Rome.  But those are the places Sig Other and I have gone for the past several years.  No ten-day minimum, no black out days, no holiday premiums.  Because Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday anywhere else in the world.

So this year, we thought “Argentina”.  Where better to head than South?  What more enticing than the land of Tango and Dulce du Leche?  We spun fantasies of warm wind brushing over bare skin as we shopped for leather and planned our late night dinners in the lively city of Buenos Ares.  But plans are not always easy and logistics conspired to make the notion of traveling such a long way for such a short time entirely unattractive and seemingly untenable.   Our ever-efficient travel agent had, however, already done some early legwork and we were committed to a particular airline.  Thus our trip would be restricted to the destinations on that particular airline’s hub.  Tahiti was sold out.  So were Paris and Amsterdan.   London reminded me of work and Hawaii was just.. Hawaii.  And then there was Prague.  We could get to Prague pretty easily, Sig Other had never been there and was, after all, of Czech descent.  He wanted to take the children to Prague to show them the Jewish ghetto with its famous cemetery and I thought how long it had been since I’d last visited the beautiful city and got excited about seeing how it had changed over the last decade.  And so we decided.  And so Prague it is.  Tickets are booked and we’ll soon be on our way.

Prague, it turns out, is quite is near Brno, the birthplace of Sig Other’s father.  And as Sig Other has never been to his father’s hometown, we’ve added that as a destination as well.  And Brno is not terribly far from Auschwitz where Sig Other’s grandmother and great aunt perished during the war.  And so that is a destination now as well.  I tried to throw my grandparents hometown in as well but was told that, in addition to the town being in the opposite direction, my grandparents hadn't perished in the holocaust and therefore did not get a place on the itinerary.  This, Sig Other pointed out, was a trip about his dead family members.  His family perished in the war.  Mine did not.  Therefore his family history would take precedence.

So somehow, due to inconvenient layovers and ill-fated mileage transfer, our sunny, sexy sojourn to the South has become a chilly trek through Holocaust history.  We’ll end our trip in Vienna where no one we know died and I have promised Child Two a trip to the Hotel Sacher Wien for a taste of its famous Sacher Torte (mit schlag of course!).  But I’m still trying to figure out how my trip to learn tango turned into a tour of the dead Jews of Eastern Europe…

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Damn you, Daisy Buchanan

"All right...I'm glad it's a girl. And I hope she'll be a fool -- that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool."
The Great Gatsby
Chapter 1, Daisy on her newborn girl.

Child One is melting down.  SAT prep, college essays, regular homework, honors homework, the speech she has to write for a fundraiser, the horse she doesn’t have time to ride, the boyfriend who disappointed, the best girlfriend who disappointed more – all these things are taking their toll and the morning began with great heaving sobs and a snotty mess.  “I’m not going to get into a top school” caterwauled into “I’m disappointing”, snuffled past a few other indecipherable exclamations and ended finally at utter despair and a muffled, “I’m not extraordinary.”

I think of myself as being rather solid in my ability to deal with Child One’s teenage meltdowns.  I recognize when they result from exhaustion, hormones or a particular incident.  But this one sort of stumped me.  This one moved past glistening tears of woe and built to a good hour of full body-wracking sobs.   I soothed her through the college anxiety – of course, I assured her, you will get into a great school.  I worked to unwind the myth of disappointment and assure her that is the last thing anyone in her life feels.  But the final statement proved harder to debunk.  The final statement gave me pause.  Because the final statement – I am not extraordinary – is one that haunts me daily and has for most of my life.  

This question of being extraordinary – of living an extraordinary life – may be unanswerable.  It may be that even those most of us would consider extraordinary suffer from feeling not quite good enough from time to time.   The genius who makes a scientific breakthrough, the mother who devotes herself daily to the needs of her handicapped child, the scholar, the day laborer, the teacher, the doctor - who gets to decide which is extraordinary and how did we, each of us, get the idea that our self worth is somehow defined by that which is so ethereal?

To me, Child One is absolutely extraordinary.  She is at the top of her class.   She is adored by her teachers, she is an amazing writer and was chosen to be the single student speaker in all of Southern California at a charity event in a few weeks.  And through it all, she remains a lovely human – a good friend, a concerned sister, an engaged and attentive daughter.  That combination of intelligence and caring, of presence and poise, of big heart with a dash of cynicism add up to a sum total of something truly out of the ordinary.  Particularly when embodied in a seventeen year old girl.  But Child One is also smart enough, and aware enough, to know that she is not the absolute best at everything.  Her equestrian skills are solid.  But she is not the best rider in the ring.  She is an excellent student, but it doesn’t all come easily.  She works hard, she’s intensely disciplined and wildly diligent.

And so here is where I start to think about Daisy Buchanan and what she said of her daughter.  Here is where I start to wonder if Daisy was right.  A little fool – a beautiful little fool – might not worry so much about raising her SAT score from very, very good to excellent.  A little fool might re-write her speech one less time or go more quickly over her studies before a test.  A little fool might not notice that her friend who she thought was smart and loyal is really just an insecure girl with an obsessive crush.  And a little fool might not think, ever once in her whole life, about whether or not she is extraordinary.

The point is this – sometimes being smart, being good at things and excelling is a lot harder than being mediocre.  That feeling that nothing is ever good enough – nothing is ever as good as it could be – will follow my sweet Child One around wherever she goes for the rest of her life. Her father has it. I have it. Most people I know have it.  And we all wear it like heavy armor.

So I understand Daisy.  I know why she would wish her daughter “a little fool.”  But I’m awfully glad Child One is not – I’m awfully glad my little girl is burdened with the complexity of intelligence and ambition and that she lives with the double-edged sword of self-awareness.  

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Porch light?

Child One and her first boyfriend broke up a few weeks ago.  To Sig Other, it’s been a lifetime.  To Child One, it was long enough ago that heartache is past but too soon to move on.  Her porch light, as they say, is not yet back on.  Sig Other would like her to move on already.  Fatherly instinct compels him to suggest that one of her close friends might be a perfect mate.  She believes it is too soon to move on, too soon to focus her affections elsewhere.  But Sig Other persists.  “Relationships,” he tells her, “heal in direct proportion to their length – one week for every year you’re together.  You and the grocer’s son were together a few months.  That means it should only take you a few days to get over him.”  I balk at this, of course.  “No,” I say, “that is not the formula at all.  Healing time is half the total duration of the relationship.”  

Even as the words escape my lips I realize what we have is a true example of boy time vs. girl time.  In boy time, relationships are to be quickly moved past, pain to be brushed aside and life to be gotten on with.  This is not to say that men grieve less than women, nor is it to suggest that the male psyche is incapable of feeling the depth of loss any less than women.  It is, however, to argue that men have a harder time being alone – that their need for companionship is greater and therefore their time between relationships – appropriate or not – is significantly shorter.   A widower is likely to marry within a year of the death of his wife.  But a widow is likely to stay a widow after the loss of her husband. 

Sig Other doesn’t like to be alone.  He will say that is wrong.  He will tell you he is a strong, independent male who calls his own shots, runs free with the wolves and is perfectly happy alone.  But the truth is, he doesn’t like it at all.  The truth is, Sig Other likes being alone about as much as he likes flying coach across the country – as in, not at all.  And the good news, for him anyway, is that he is alone about as frequently as he flies coach across the country – as in, not at all.  Sig Other has staff, he has friends, he has children, he has dogs and he has me.  Those of us not paid to be in his presence actually quite enjoy it.  Sig Other has fostered an environment of cozy togetherness.  The children, the dogs, and I all like to be in close proximity whenever possible.  And so alone is not something he must experience but for those rare moments he chooses to.    

Child One doesn’t care to be alone either.  She likes to be cozy and will choose company over solitude at all times.  But Child One is also particular.  She has good girlfriends and good guy friends and more than enough parents and dogs to fill whatever void is left by the absence of one inattentive young man.  And so, Child One feels no need to move on, no need to feel the space left by her first boyfriend with her next boyfriend just because there IS a space to fill.  She will wait for the RIGHT boyfriend, for the right moment for the right boyfriend and then slowly, carefully, turn the porch light back on to let the boy know its time to come calling…

Monday, October 4, 2010


Two nights ago it was 83 degrees at almost midnight.  Tonite its 53 and drizzly and I’m suddenly realizing how much I missed this summer.  It was never hot this summer.  Not really.  Never officially sweltering in the way the San Fernando Valley can get at the height of the long summer days.  The concrete never got so hot that you could lay yourself out on it in the chilly night air to warm your bones.  The hills never got so tinderbox dry that looking at them sent chills down my spine.  The house never got so hot from days on end of triple digit temperatures that our air conditioning shut down in fatigue and sheer humiliation. 

And now it is officially fall.  Summer, lost in a chilly fog that shrouded much of Southern California, is technically over.  The grey misty air that dominated the long days and robbed us of the joy of a late night swim sealed the fate of the memory of those months.  Only last week’s few sweltering nights of Indian Summer – Harvest Moon hanging heavy in thick hot air – reminded me of what I love so much about the summer – what I love so much about summer in the valley – in the undignified “818”.  That thick valley night heat hung heavy and sexy and dangerous for five whole days and nights.  It was sad and romantic and thrilling.  And it reminded me of younger days and of different times - not better but perhaps more vibrant. 

Pardon me for sounding morose – I’m not really. It’s just that Sig Other is away as he was most of the summer, working like a man driven by unseen demons riding him to success. And I worked harder in my 44th year than I have in any prior.  So summer passed in a foggy haze, too quick and not particularly memorable.  There were milestones along the way – births and divorces and deaths – too many deaths. It was neither hot nor cold.  Neither wildly fun nor terribly miserable.  It was just a few months of no school for the kids that flowed quickly into shorter days with busy schedules.  Summer 2010 was a quick blip on the calendar of our lives.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Going out in style...

When I die, Sig Other will buy a Rolls Royce with the money left him by my life insurance.  We’ve discussed it at length.  It will be a convertible.  It might be vintage and it might be chocolate brown and shadow gray with tan interior.   He will, of course, be sad that I’m gone.  He will, of course miss me.  Surely, he will be downright inconsolable as he drives his shiny new car.  But he will also be able to finally afford it and so will experience his grief in style.  That is, of course, before he takes his next wife.
These are the sorts of conversations we have about the future.  I will die first and he will get the car of his dreams.  It all seems very simple.  We don’t talk about what would happen if he should die first.  We used to.   He used to tell me that it was my responsibility to arrange his funeral – a grand affair at the Hollywood Bowl where the Philharmonic (guest conducted by Zubin Mehta) would play Beethoven’s 9th Symphony as his body burned on a pyre center stage (Sig Other’s body, that is.  Not Zubin Mehta’s).  But now we just talk about the Rolls Royce. 

We’re lucky, Sig Other and I.  So far (and I write this knocking superstitiously on all things wooden around me), we have our health.  As do most of our friends.  But we’re getting older and at some point, time and fate will step in and do what they do.  I hope we handle it all rather elegantly.  I hope we manage to sail through with little pain and a modicum of dignity.  But mostly I hope my sweetheart gets his Rolls Royce much, much later in life…

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Best Friend B has a glorious female offspring with bouncy blonde curls and an extraordinarily sunshiny personality.  Baby N is funny and sweet and curious and unabashedly friendly.  And Baby N is also slightly self-centric as is fitting a girl of her age.  At twenty months, she is thoroughly convinced that the world, quite rightly, revolves around her.  And so whenever we take walks together or venture out into the world or even sit quietly in a restaurant, she will point to any nearby stranger and asks, “who’s that?”
“Ask” may be too gentle a word in most cases, for in truth, Baby N is truly demanding an answer.  If ignored, “who’s that” may be repeated several times and in fact, may even be shouted directly into the offender’s face until an answer is proffered.  Sometimes the stranger is entertained.  After all, Baby N is truly adorable.  And sometimes the stranger is simply taken aback.  Baby N’s demands can be jarring.  Its not often one sees a child so young who is also so adamant. 

But Baby N is a determined young lady.  Pity the fool who takes her kindly nature for granted, for she is an indomitable force when pushed beyond her limits.   Sure, Baby N is charming and sweet and largely good-natured.  But force her to walk one way when she prefers another, or pick her up when all she wants is down, and God help you.  Likewise, refuse to respond to her little-girl need to know exactly who is entering her bubble, and suffer an endless string of “whozzat” until she gets a satisfactory answer.

Mostly, Baby N is an endless source of entertainment and fascination for me.  She is pure, unadulterated narcissism.  The world is her domain and anyone in it must be explained – nay – justified.   I’m not sure at what point pure narcissism transforms – at what point she will become aware of other people in her looking glass.  I’m delighted to watch her grow but sad to know that someday she will know the world was not made only for her. 

Monday, September 20, 2010

The bitter and the sweet...

Its an odd thing to say, but I love Yom Kippur.  It is, in fact, my favorite day of the year.  Its strange really – the idea that the day of atonement, a day of fasting and prayer that most people think of as a chore or as penance – the idea that this day could be my favorite among so many (notwithstanding my birthday which is still one of my favorite days of the year despite the march of time).  But I do love it.  I love its solemnity and its quietude.  I love a forced shutdown and I love the ritual of it all.  I love the time spent learning and talking about stories from the Torah. 

I did the 10Q this year.  The 10Q is a sort of hippy-dippy Reboot questionnaire – one question each night between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – one question to answer about something in your life, something personal, something intimate.  The answers can be anonymous and they are locked away in the 10Q vault.  One year from now, an email will arrive as a reminder of the questions and our answers.  One year from now we get the opportunity to see how right we were in our predictions, how far we ventured from our imagined paths, how little we accomplished of our stated goals.  Its very Jewish, actually, this idea of recording these things and locking them away.

I fear I don’t have great expectations for the year ahead on a macro level.  I predicted the housing market would not recover.  I predicted war in Israel.  I predicted a distressing amount of damage to the Democratic party and a lack of recovery for the California education system.  On a sunnier note, I predicted that Child One would get into a wonderful university and that Sig Other’s business would continue to thrive. 

What I cannot predict, and what I dare not think about, is what will happen in the minutae of the forward movements of the days – today, tomorrow, the day after.   I cannot predict who Child Two will be one year from now any more than I could have told you a year ago that he would be the marvelous young man he is today.  I cannot predict the little things that make seemingly insignificant moments carry such weight.  

Child One broke up with her boyfriend tonight.  Her tears and sadness were assuaged first by coffee ice cream, and next by an email announcing that she would be the invited speaker at a fundraising event for a major philanthropic organization in one month’s time.  Her tears of sorrow over the boy were replaced instantly by tears of joy at her success.  A beat later came acknowledgement – if she could be made happy so easily by this achievement, then perhaps the boy had not been so important to her after all.  Indeed.   All things worth considering as we begin 5771 and hope that we have been written in the book for one more year. ..

Monday, September 6, 2010

Please sir, may I have another key?

Sig Other and I never took a honeymoon. Its not that we didn’t want to.  But life takes over (or as Best Friend B says, “Man plans and God laughs”) and we just never found the time.  We’ve tried a few times to take a couples vacation, but just haven’t been able to swing it.  There was the time we planned a romantic trip for two to Rome.  But then Child One asked to come along.  And when your teenage daughter ASKS to spend time with you, “No” is a thought that never enters your head.   But the summer has been a long one and time off scarce, so I finally managed to plan a few days off, alone with Sig Other on a weekend when the children were scheduled to be with BioMom. 

Cut to Fancy Adult Camp – a luxurious, adults only resort high on an idyllic cliff top overlook fog (er, um, I mean spectacular ocean – somewhere down there).  Fancy Adult Camp is a no car zone.  Guests go from room to spa to dining area to meditation pond via a meandering road shaded by canopies of cedar and redwood trees.  Fancy Adult Camp smells good.  And when you check in to Fancy Adult Camp, they give you one key.

The one key thing didn’t really occur to me as I breathed in the clean Pacific air.  It didn’t occur to me as I marveled at the blissful view and listened to the sound of utter relaxation.  The one key thing didn’t really strike me until about twenty minutes after settling in, when I wanted to go one way and Sig Other wanted to go another. 

One key assumes you and your partner will be spending all your time together.  One key assumes you book side-by-side activities and presupposes a sort of 100% romantic symbiosis that I hadn’t planned.  One key does NOT assume that you will want to go to the pool while your Sig Other naps, it does NOT assume that you will want to hike around the property while your Sig Other downloads a document from the one corner of the hotel with decent Wi-Fi.  It does not assume any alone time factored into romantic couple time. 

The one key policy made me realize I may not be so good at this whole relaxing vacation thing.  Padding down the path alone to the meditation tub in my green robe and fuzzy slippers, I felt a little self-conscious.  It felt somehow wrong to be solo on a path in a couple’s retreat headed to the meditation pool.  I realized I wouldn’t be doing any meditating.   I would be reading.  On my iPad.  A lot.  Sort of the opposite of meditating really.  I wasn't looking inward at all.   I was planning to look outward.  A great deal.

But then I got to the meditation tub and saw there was only one other person there.  Another woman.  Alone.  No Sig Other in sight.  And she was reading TATLER.  I felt better and settled in for a read, a lot less worried about the napping Sig Other and our one key.   

Saturday, August 14, 2010


Twitter introduced the “#FF” and we tweeters know that stands for “Follow Fridays”.  In Twitter world, #FF is a way to recommend new friends to like-minded followers and discover new and exciting people to follow.  But in my world, FF stands for something else.   In my world, FF stands for Filter Free (or “FFF”, as in Filter Free Fridays).

The term “filter free” was originated by Child One and is oft-times accompanied by an emphatic gesture – her hand waving up and down in front of her mouth as she looks at her father and says, “Daddy!  Filter!!!”  Because sometimes, Sig Other says something out loud that perhaps he should not.  Sometimes, Sig Other says things that we may all think but only he gives voice to.  Sometimes, Sig Other struggles to adhere to the constraints of polite society. 

It isn’t that he’s impolite, exactly.  It’s just that he mostly says what he means.  And mostly he manages to do so in a way that is not terribly offensive.  Mostly.  To be specific, Sig Other’s filter – the one that thoughts usually pass through before coming out his mouth – is more porous than some.  He was raised, the son of a diplomat, in embassies all over the world, and so the filter engages fully at cocktail parties and in boardrooms and in ways which allow him to function most days quite successfully.

But something happens on Fridays.  Some diabolical demon of destruction comes and lays waste to whatever thin membrane exists between every waking thought in that big brain and the impulse to express them.  The breakdown begins at sunset and often carries through the weekend.  And hence we dubbed these lapses “Filter Free Fridays”. 

As Filter Free Fridays coincide with the Sabbath, witnesses are most often family and closest friends.  Sig Other lets loose at the dinner table and, depending on mood and amount of sleep, can continue his Filter Free state through an entire weekend.  There is Filter Free Frankness, known to most as inappropriately naked candor.  And Filter Free Fun, which is often a song, a limerick, or loud scatological freestyling.    Filter Free Fridays can manifest in public as well as in private.  This can be as slight as a naughty joke or as massive as a loud outburst in the middle of a crowded restaurant.  Mostly, Filter Free Fridays are entertaining.  At worst they are embarrassing.  Very rarely they are offensive. 

On the rare occasion that the triple F manifests at the outward edge of acceptable, I consider becoming a Monday through Thursday wife.  Why, I wonder, must I accept my role as wife of a part-time victim of temporary Tourettes?  But along with the pain brought by lack of filter, there is also and quite often, great joy.  Hilarious, uproarious hijinx are born of the filter free zone.  And laughter accompanies Friday nights in as great measure as pain.  On the rare occasion that I miss the filter, I remind myself that my vows were not “in politeness and in health”, they were not “until unbridled truth do you part”.  And I knew about the Triple F long before we married.   So I carry on and wait for the adventure ahead.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Brother, can you spare a dime?

Sig Other is diligent about the Jewish custom of “tzedakah”.  He gives generously to organizations both religious and political.  He’s sort of a softy for someone who presents so tough and he can be moved to tears (though he would deny it) by the plight of the oppressed.  And he will always, always give money to those in need on the street.  There is always an extra dollar in his pocket, always an extra few in the car. 

But recently, Sig Other has decided that isn’t quite enough.  Recently, Sig Other has been moved by something else: bad messaging.  It all started when we saw a young man sitting at the freeway entrance holding a sign reading: ILL – PLEASE HELP.  “That’s bad branding,” said Sig Other, spritzing with Purell after handing the young man some cash.  “I could help that guy.  If he just changed his brand, he’d do a lot better.  No one wants to get close to a guy who is sick.”  Admittedly, not everyone processes tzedakah through the lens of a self-professed germaphobe, but I had to admit, I could see his point. 

Later that same day we saw an older gentleman with two signs.  One said: HUNGRY.  The other: MEG WHITMAN DEVIL GOLDMAN SACHS EVIL DESTROYERERS OF THE WORLD.  With the first sign, Sig Other could find no flaw.  Simple, to the point.  The second sign?  Bad messaging.  Meg Whitman might be the devil and Goldman Sachs may be responsible for the end of the world but that doesn’t make the sign a good fundraising tool.  California, as Sig Other pointed out, is the state that vetoed gay marriage the first time around and voted the Terminator into office.  So there’s a damn good chance at least half the hungry guy’s audience who may have been sympathetic to his digestive plight was just turned off by his political dogma and rolled their stuffy windows back up.

And then came the last straw.  Then came the day that Sig Other walked down a street in Vancouver, Canada and saw a man holding a sign that said, “Hungry???”  The man was eating a sandwich.  This was, without question, a clear case of poor advertising.  Sig Other could stop himself no longer.  He offered a dollar.  And then he offered more.  “This,” he said to the sandwich-eater, “is a bad sign.  I’m confused by your messaging.  Are you asking if I’m hungry?  Or are you suggesting that being hungry is something to question?  And if you are trying to sell your hunger in order to get money, don’t you think it’s a bad idea to be eating a sandwich at the same time that you are holding the sign?  Is it that you are offering ME the sandwich?   Do you see what I’m saying?”  Of course the man did not see, and in that moment possibly wondered how he had attracted someone so intense and passionate (or perhaps someone so crazy).  He continued to eat his sandwich, looked down at the dollar and said, “American?” 

In spite of (or perhaps because of) this response, Sig Other has made a new pledge.  In addition to giving money to anyone in need, he also now pledges to help build their brand.  He will, for instance, explain to the sick guy that perhaps that “ill” may not be the message to lead with.  Or he may say to the Meg Whitman Hater that he would be better served keeping his political agenda to himself.  In this way, Sig Other feels he is bringing more than just cash to the transaction.  Or, in his words, “I’m giving away my intellectual property.  And that is the most valuable thing I have.”  So now, in addition to checks written and donations logged, Sig Other has found an even better way to fulfilling the mandate of tzedakah – a couple of bucks and a bit of advice.  

Thursday, August 5, 2010

LOST: One Clitoris. Not mine.

Child Two loves the movies.  He loves war movies and sci-fi movies and action movies.  But mostly, he loves comedy.  He’s seen Talledega Nights so many times he can recite Will Farrell’s entire grace monologue on command.  He watches as many comedies as we’ll take him to and I knew he was dying to see “Dinner with Schmucks.”  So what better way to flex my stepmom muscle than to offer him a mid-day movie excursion.  Opening day.  Just the two of us.

Comedy has always proved elusive to me.  What one person may find hilarious, another can find deeply dull or downright stupid.  And often, Child Two finds uproarious 11-year old boy humor in things I find utterly disdainful.  But we were both completely in sync when it came to the brand of humor in this particular movie.  Minute after unfunny minute passed and we hung in there, thinking surely this must pass and surely the comedy would kick in any second. 

Finally, we got to the “dinner” of the “Dinner with Schmucks” and the Schmuck explains why his wife left him.  He lost her clitoris, he explains to a roomful of guests.  He didn’t know what it was and so he didn’t know WHERE it was.  At one point he thought maybe it was under the couch but that turned out to be just a piece of gum.   On and on he goes about the lost bit of anatomy and deeper and deeper I sink into my seat, stealing sideways glances at Child Two and praying that he is not stealing sideways glances at me.  “Please,” I pray silently, “please don’t let him lean over and ask me what a clitoris is.” 

The moment passed and I sat rigid through the remainder of the movie hoping he wouldn’t remember this particular bit of unfunny to bring up as we discussed the myriad unfunny moments throughout the unfunny film.  Thankfully, Child Two let slide this wildly uncomfortable PG-13 moment.  Perhaps he knows what a clitoris is and doesn’t need to ask.  Perhaps he doesn’t know what it is but knows enough to know that asking would yield a wildly uncomfortable conversation better had with his father than his stepmother.  Or perhaps he doesn’t know, didn’t recognize my discomfort and just brushed it off as yet another unfunny moment he didn’t quite get.  Whatever the reason, I escaped unquestioned and deeply grateful. 

Two nights later, I was talking to a friend who sat through the same movie with his nine-year old son.  My friend brought up the same scene, the same twinge of discomfort, the same lack of little boy response.  We laughed about it and I walked away feeling slightly better about what I had assumed to be my failing as a stepmother – my inability to confront questions of sexuality with my stepson.  I had assumed that stepmotherness inhibited my ability to speak frankly with Child Two about the female anatomy.  But it turns out my failing was entirely unrelated to my step-status.  My failing is simply that of the typical adult. 

Sig Other, I’m sure, would scoff at my prudishness and declare it uniquely American.  He would most likely have used the opportunity to launch into a technical discussion of labia and its surrounds that would have mortified Child Two in the moment but fascinated him in the long run.  And I would have simply ducked for cover.   But Sig Other was not at the movie and so Child Two suffers no such embarrassment.  I, however, am left wondering when (if not already) the boy will know that a clitoris is truly not something that looks like a piece of gum under a couch…