Friday, July 30, 2010

Say what???

Child One got a 99% on her UCLA Philosophy of Religion mid-term.  I told her she was brilliant.  And that her genetic briliance must come from me.  That, and her slightly Jewy nose.  She finds this terribly funny, as do I, because of course Child One is not related to me by blood. 

Child One’s Philosophy of Religion course has generated a lot of conversation in our house.  Conversation and, sometimes, controversy.  Controversy generated by stupidity and insecurity.  My own, of course.  The conversation went awry the other night, as we were discussing belief in God.  We talked about believers and non-believers.  Here’s what Sig Other said of me, “You don’t know what you believe.  You just have lots of questions.”  And here’s what I heard, “You’re an idiot.”  This is, to be clear, not remotely what he meant.  In fact, he would describe himself as someone asking questions.  And, in fact, Judaism is a religion that is all about a relationship of questions.  And yet I took offense, I heard something else, something Sig Other did not mean. 

So I spent the next day thinking about why I would leap to such a place – why I would default to insecurity.  Sig Other had touched a nerve.  But the nerve he touched wasn’t about believing or not believing.  The nerve he touched wasn’t about asking questions.  The nerve he touched was about not having spent enough time or energy searching for the answers to those questions. 

“Do whatever you want in life but be the best at whatever it is you choose.”  That’s what we were taught, my sisters and me.  And it’s a great message for the most part.  The flip side is a quest for perfectionism that is often left unfulfilled.  I am not a perfectionist.  Not by a longshot.  And the years spent not dedicating myself 100% to the pursuit of knowledge is coming home to roost in ways I find unbearable.  I yearn for more hours to read, to study, to learn.  And yet I know that if the pursuit of knowledge were truly a priority, I would rearrange my life to make it so.  Work would remain unchanged, but I would let someone else buy the groceries, make the gourmet meals, entertain at their house.  Time spent creating a particular environment for my family would be redirected toward the expansion of my own intellect. 

But I’m not really that girl.  I’m the girl who wants to work for the bacon, buy the bacon and fry the bacon.  So I will admit that I’m incredibly jealous of Child One’s experience in this class.  Jealous that she gets to sit in a college class surrounded by interested others and engage as her mind is pried wide open to new ideas and engaging thoughts.  I long to have the time to discover what I don’t know.  I long to have the time to engage in discourse about things I may never grasp but still nonetheless find fascinating.  And someday I will.  Someday the children will be grown and my job will be less intense and I will make the time to find answers to at least a few of the questions I know its ok to ask.   And until then, I’ll long for more time and try to hear the words being said and not the words I imagine.  

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Bad Ems

In a tiny town, next to the Rhine River, sits what was once a famous spa town.  Famous for its water.  Famous for its facilities.  Famous for those who come to heal there.  What it isn’t famous for is my family tree.  What it isn’t well known for is the history that went before and is long since erased –a history of people whose sterling silver at breakfast lifestyle was transformed by politics and ignorance.  And it isn’t well known for a woman fearing the actual (her husband impending death) and the theoretical (the threat of a Nazi future which seemed, at the time, a complete impossibility).  I know very little about my great grandmother other than the fact that she wouldn’t leave her husband, the Rabbi, when the rest of the family was told it was best for Jews to get out of Germany.  And I know that she didn’t approve of the marriage of her son, Rudolph, to the orphan, Eva. 

Eva Kutchinsky came to Laser Weingarten’s orphanage when she was 8 years old.   She was one of four children I think.  Or maybe it was five.  There was an older sister, long since moved to America.  And a hunchbacked brother.  And a much younger sister who would follow Eva around like a lost puppy her whole life (“I married one and got two,” my grandfather used to say).   She was too young to be out in the world on her own and too old to start over with new parents.  Too uneducated to be considered part of acceptable high German society and too pretty to be ignored.  And even at that young age, even as an orphan from a different country – a girl with no home and no one to claim her – she caught my grandfather’s eye.  My grandfather was fancy.  He had cars and dogs and horses and a good education and a rich full life.  He was older than she, though not by much.   And he could have had any girl in town he wanted.  But he wanted her.
There’s a story about Grandpa going away to America as a young man, and a story about a box of candy he gave her before he left – a box of candy with an enameled watch that still exists somewhere in jewelry box in my sister’s house.  And the story of how he came back.  How against his mother’s wishes (after all, Eva wasn’t “fine” enough for him), he returned to profess his love and court her (with her little sister following everywhere they went) and finally marry her.  There’s the story of the veil that caught fire during the religious ceremony (which was not the same as the civil ceremony which took place months before).  And the story of someone telling them, just at the right time though my grandmother was nine months pregnant with my mother, that it was time to leave Germany.

All of these stories are worth telling.  And all of them are stories I wish I knew in greater detail – stories that lead to questions unasked and moments I’ll never know about.  But mostly, tonite, I miss my grandma.  I miss how soft the skin on her forearm was – how warm the pudge of her upper arm.  I miss the image of her driving her hot rod two tone orange and black Matador through the valley and the way she fluttered around meals as though each time was her first in the kitchen.  Sometimes, I forget that she’s gone and I fantasize about sitting at her dining table with a glass of tea and chocolate coffeecake ring from Weby’s.  We’d talk and I’d ask her the questions I wish I’d asked her when I had the chance.  I’d ask her what my mother was like when she was little and what it was really like coming to a country where she knew no one.  I’d ask about losing her parents and what she remembered of her mother.  And I’d ask, once again, how to make those big heavy matzo balls she made at pesach – not the ones for the soup but the ones she’d slice and fry that sat in my stomach for days on end but were too delicious to pass up.  

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The World Gone Mad.

Every now and then we face the things that put our trivial workaday complaints into perspective.  More than every now and then, really.   These things do not happen often, but neither are they rare.  “Periodically” makes these things sound trivial.  They’re not. 

Today, in a hospital not far from here, a man says goodbye to a wife as another man waits for his wife to give birth to their second son.  I’m not sure these two men even know about the plight of the other.  And yet they know each other, call one another “friend” and both couples have shared dinners and momentous occasions together – each was at the other’s wedding.  At this moment, they are separated by a few hundred feet.  And yet in the space of a few feet and a few hours their lives travel down divergent and irreversible paths.  One because of an untimely death.  One because of a much-awaited birth. 

I know them both.  Was at both weddings.  Have shared joy and disappointment with both.  And am thinking of them both now as I sit at home, alone, knowing I can help neither.  It’s a terrible feeling really.  Helplessness.  And I sometimes wonder how much of this feeling is driven by charity and how much by ego.  How much of me – of any of us – wants to reach out because it’s the right thing to do and how much is it driven by wanting to be a part of whatever thing – joyous or tragic – is going on.  The truth is, there is nothing I can do.  The truth is that the only thing to do is call my husband and tell him I love him, go home and hug my dogs, make sure the children are safe and happy, cuddle up on the couch. 

Its been a strange summer so far – not hot enough or slow enough to feel lazy and liberating.  I don’t feel like skipping out early or taking a few hours to head to the beach.  There is too much drama afoot.  Too many marriages hanging in the balance, too many people out of work, too many decisions unmade.  There are, of course, babies being born.  Sig Other is healthy and working hard, the children are busy and happy.  But unrest and unhappiness creeping in from all sides makes me simultaneously incredibly grateful and deeply anxious.  I cannot rest – I must be diligent and stay the course lest I tempt fate.  I must keep my head down – quietly barrel ahead and draw no attention from the evil eye.  I am oddly superstitious for a cynical person and oddly Protestant for a Jew.  And so I sit tonite and wait, and hope and I suppose in my own way I pray.  I mutter the kaddish under my breath for a sweet woman gone too soon and sit by my email waiting for news of the birth of a baby.  

Friday, July 2, 2010

We hold these truths to be self evident...

When I was very little, the 4th of July was celebrated on aluminum foldaway lawn chairs in the front yard of our house at the end of a cul-de-sac in Bakersfield.  Neighbors gathered to watch distant explosions light up the sky from the state college a few miles away.  I don’t remember barbecues (although I’m sure there were some).  But I do remember VanDeKamp’s molasses cookies which is what the cocker spaniel belonging to the neighbors two doors down liked to eat.  There were sparklers which I was afraid of and games like “kick the can” – games I couldn’t play because I was too little and had to go to bed while the other big kids on the block, including my sisters, got to stay up late and run around in the hot dry desert night air. 

I honestly don’t remember any 4th of Julys after that until I was in my late 20s and my friend, Gary, took me on my first trip to East Hampton.  We took a train from the city and arrived, rumpled and sweaty, at the station where we bummed a ride to the rinky-dink airport and rented a car before heading to the beach.  I’d never experienced the beaches of the East Coast and didn’t expect the miles and miles of unspoiled beaches butting up against grassy dunes.  The water was bracing and the waves rough, but the air was soft and downy and the light was heavenly.  We stayed until sunset and then headed to the summer share of a friend of his where I was a little surprised to find there was no bedroom for us.  But ever undaunted and more familiar in the ways of young hungry weekends in the Hamptons, Gary acted as if it was perfectly normal and we hunkered down on the living room floor with sheets and scroungy blankets and no pillows and slept like babies after a long day at the beach and a brilliant cookout in the backyard with a revolving-door crowd of friends and acquaintances.  

The next morning, we drove to Southampton to watch the 4th of July parade – a real old fashioned, all-American, flag-waving parade replete with vintage cars, 4-H kids and church floats.  It never occurred to me before that day that people other than Republicans waved the American flag.  But here I was, surrounded by some Republicans but also a lot of Democrats and gays and young and old and we were all waving flags and celebrating the day.  I was swept up in the Americana of it all – it was foreign and new and utterly thrilling to me. 

For the next decade or so, I did whatever I could to make sure that I could recreate that feeling.  There were 4ths spend on Martha’s Vineyard and 4ths in the Hamptons – parades and fireworks and barbecues galore.  Hours on end were spent making buckets of potato salad and shucking dozens of ears of corn for an annual party that became a grand tradition.  I learned from my friend Ben the great tradition of reading aloud from the Declaration of Independence – an amazing document and one you should review if you haven’t of late.  Every one of those holidays was glorious – even the one spent hunkered inside the pool house fashioning slickers from garbage bags as rain bucketed down from the early July sky. 

But times change and our lives change.  Circumstance moved me from east back west and though my life is far superior in every other aspect now, I must confess I miss those 4ths.  Somehow, a trip to overcrowded Malibu in horrendous traffic doesn’t hold a candle to any version of the 4th on the east coast.  And watching fireworks from the parking lot of the yogurt store down the block is ok, but not really my fantasy of the celebration of Americana.  One year we tried Ojai – which does come replete with quaint town parade and pokey local fireworks.  It was pretty good actually.  I adored the vision of a pack of children running like wild banshees across the golf course against the darkening sky, and loved being surrounded by friends I know I’ll have forever.  But still, it wasn’t quite the same.  The air was different against my skin, there were no fireflies or June bugs, no drippy wet humidity. 

The truth is, whether sitting on the beach wrapped in a blanket watching fireworks explode over the water or watching from an outdoor table in Little Italy as sparks fly out over Chinatown, New York will always have a corner on the 4th of July market in my mind.