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.