Alone and Together

I suspect that among the secrets of a long and successful marriage is achieving a balance between “together time” and “alone time.”

Alone time does not necessarily imply being without company; it includes time spent with family, friends and colleagues in social and work situations that do not involve one’s spouse.  That isn’t to say that a person doesn’t also need some time to be totally alone.  Everyone wants some private time to commune with a book, an iPod or a pet.  It’s also healthy to have some time to just sit and think, without spouse, children or boss yelling for you from the next room or office.

My wife and I seem to have traveled through every possible permutation on the alone/together spectrum during our sixteen years of marriage to date.  Well, all but one.  We’ve never had to live apart, thank God.  I remember my parents doing that when I was a teenager.  The demands of their careers took them to different states, so they did the “I’ll visit you this weekend, you visit me next weekend” thing for several years.  I was already off to college when most of that occurred, but I know it was hard on my youngest sister.  At the time, it didn’t occur to me how this living arrangement was affecting my parents.  In the thoughtless way of teenagers, I figured that they chose it, so it’s their problem.

I thought about this recently when we learned that a married couple who are friends of ours are considering doing the weekend commute thing to maximize their career opportunities.  You just have to wonder whether there’s more to it than meets the eye.  Perhaps, like my parents all those years ago, they aren’t getting along with each other as well as they’d like us to think.

During the first few years of our marriage, my wife and I each did stints working the graveyard shift at the phone company.  Our employer did everything possible to keep spouses off the same shift, so there were a few times when we felt like ships passing in the night.  Although we didn’t have a lot of together time, it wasn’t as rough as one might expect.  When you work “the grave,” the only thing that really matters is sleep.

After several years during which we both worked more normal hours and had evenings and weekends together, I was hired to work in a remote area out in the middle of the desert.  My wife left her job to move out there with me, which left her at home alone all day.  She knew no one and her family and friends were 600 miles away.  We lived in a hick town where there was absolutely nothing to do and the nearest mall or movie theater was an hour and a half away.  Unless she went to the grocery store, my wife was stuck at home.  She spent a lot of time texting, instant messaging, emailing and Facebooking friends in other parts of the state and country.  To make matters worse, my work left me tired and wanting to go to sleep early and catch extra sleep on the weekends.  When I arrived home after work on a Friday, I generally wanted only a meal and to commune with the back of my eyelids, which would leave my wife alone some more while I snored.  After being alone all week, my wife understandably wanted to get out of town and do something.  We did our best to compromise, dividing our weekends between staying home and escaping.

After I got laid off from that job, we relocated back to northern California and moved in with my wife’s family.  Suddenly, we found ourselves at the opposite end of the spectrum.  Instead of being alone all the time, my wife couldn’t escape her family for a minute.  As I was unemployed and looking for work for nearly a year, I got to witness this firsthand.

The recipe goes something like this:  Grab your husband and, to save money during a period of unemployment of unknown duration, move in with your mother in a house with just one bathroom for the three of you.  Your sister and her kids and granddaughter will live about a mile away.  You will become the chief form of day care for your grandniece.  Oh, and make that house the parsonage of a church with the doorbell ringing and parishioners and community members and the homeless banging on your door at all hours of the day and night.  Wake up and stumble into the living room to find a strange woman sitting on your couch.  Be awoken at two in the morning by a man standing outside and yelling “Pastor! Pastor!”

Alone time?  What’s that?

We went from missing family to having them on top of us every minute.  Alas, in life it is often difficult to find the mythical happy medium.  There were a few weekends when we rented a hotel room thirty minutes away just so my wife could escape the constant going and running and doing for someone or other.  When we first arrived here, it felt good to be tucked in among extended family; now, we cherish any opportunity for just the two of us to be together.

This past week, Pastor Mom went out of town for a couple of days, during which time my wife happened not to have any babysitting duties.  She actually had the house to herself and could hear herself think for once.  She says the peace and quiet was heavenly.

In about two or three months, we plan to move into our own apartment in a location much closer to my work.  Not only do we look forward to putting the regimen of commuting behind us, but it will be great for my wife and I to have regular “alone together” time while my wife can have her “alone alone” time during the day.  It sounds like marital bliss to me.

And if we miss the family, well, they’ll only be about half an hour away.  I’m sure we’ll still spend a lot of time with them, but after all the running around, we’ll have a place to which we can escape.  A place where we don’t have to remember to lock the bathroom door or watch where we toss our clothes.  In other words, we’ll be able to go home.

Together.

Alone.

Tantrum

One of my favorite put-downs has always been “What, are you two years old or something?”

Lately, however, I have been rethinking the wisdom of this phrase.  My grandniece, who really is two years old, has helped me to see the error of my ways.  If I put aside the likelihood of public embarrassment for a moment, I am forced to admit that I am jealous of her.

A couple of years ago, in one of my early posts on this blog, I took issue with a former boss who claimed that she wanted to be six years old again.  As I recall, I recited a litany of reasons for my disagreement with that point of view.  I stated that I enjoy being an adult, thank you, and would never wish to return to a time when I could make none of my own decisions and was subject to the whims of those around me.

Okay, so I was wrong.  Admitting to one’s mistakes is supposed to be a grown-up thing, right?

On second thought, I don’t want to be six again like my old boss did.  I want to be two again.

My current boss says that one of the reasons she chose me to work for her is that I am mature.  I told her that she must not know me very well.

This evening, my little grandniece schooled me well and truly.  For reasons not totally understood by me (and probably not even by herself), she decided to throw an unholy fit right here in the living room.  I’m talking about a regular kicking and screaming, crying and carrying-on tantrum.  I believe it was set off by being provided with a bite of an ice cream rather than having the entire ice cream handed over to her, as she felt was her due.  (Although the real reason that she put on this show probably runs a whole lot deeper.  Doesn’t it always?)

I thought the whole thing was killer cool.  Wouldn’t it be great to be able to freely express our emotions in a manner that included throwing ourselves on the floor and yelling “Mommy! Mommy! Moooommmmmyyyyyy!” for, oh, about ten minutes or so?

It would be ridiculous for an adult to do this, of course.  Or would it?  It might sound silly to you now, but I bet you’d feel better when you were done.

I know next to nothing about psychology, but I’ve heard that Gestalt therapy sometimes trucks in exercises like this.  Why not?  I remember my high school psych teacher telling the class about scream therapy, which has to be a near cousin of the tantrum.

Know what the best part is?  After a few minutes of leaving my grandniece to her histrionics, my wife picked her up, carried her over to my wife’s chair and proceeded to rock and cuddle her.  She quieted down almost immediately.  My wife says that my grandniece gets so upset that she is no longer able to calm herself down.  I think this is true of adults as well, but we instead try to calm ourselves in decidedly insalubrious ways such as drinking, doing drugs, overeating, gambling. shopping, engaging in passive-aggressive behavior or general bitchiness.  I daresay that my grandniece’s method of letting it all out is far more healthy than nearly any employed by adults (and cheaper, too).

I really might be tempted to try it, if only to prove that I’m not as mature as people think I am.  My problem would be how to get my fat behind onto the carpet and how, with my bum knees, to drag myself back up again afterward.  I wonder if the true statute of limitations on tantrum throwing is not age but weight.

Adults are expected to act their chronological ages, and failure to do so is met by sanctions ranging from shunning to being locked up in a mental hospital where you can freely do your tantrum thing in a padded cell.  No one can reasonably expect to be rewarded for throwing a good old-fashioned tantrum, and certainly not by a cuddle and a kiss.

Unless, of course, you’re two years old.

Which is why I urge my family to save some money when my birthday rolls around by not buying those three boxes of candles.  This year, maybe they won’t have to burn through a whole box of matches and keep the fire department on standby.

After all, I only need two candles on my birthday cake.  Just don’t buy me any Frozen or Little Mermaid merchandise as presents.

You wouldn’t want me to throw a tantrum now, would you?

The Marriage Gene

My sister called last night to tell me about a hot job prospect in the Bay Area.  She’s hoping she gets the job so that she can move back into her house at the end of the renters’ lease term.  I don’t blame her for hoping that her days as a traveling sonographer might be over.

Just as she called, I received a text from my cousin on the east coast.  This is starting to get freaky.  First, my sister, who I often don’t hear from for months, calls me twice in one week.  Then my only first cousin, whom I haven’t seen or spoken to since 1996, appears out of nowhere.  “Who is this?” I asked when he texted me.  I didn’t even recognize the area code.

I am guessing that my cousin, who is only two weeks older than I am, is trying to reconnect with family for some reason.  Apparently, my brother-in-law in Texas finally accepted a Facebook friend request that my cousin made two years ago.  In our younger days, my cousin had a little crush on my Texas sister, but of course nothing came of it since we’re first cousins and all.  Instead, he ended up marrying one of her best friends.

Putting two and two together, I suppose my Texas sister or her husband gave my cousin the phone number for my Bay Area sister.  Then she gave him my number.

My cousin and I are such opposites that, from childhood on, we never had much to do with one another.  He was always a thin, tall, good-looking guy, while I’ve always been short and obese.  I was always well-behaved and did well in school, while my cousin had a sassy mouth, was constantly in trouble and struggled with grades.  My earliest memory of my cousin is when, at the age of five, in a fit of pique he took off his shoe and threw it at my grandparents’ console television.

I’m sure that a good part of my cousin’s early problems were related to his upbringing.  His parents were constantly screaming at each other and, I am told, had fistfights.  His father was a skinny little 98 pound guy, while his mother was a huge woman with a huge voice.  They both had huge tempers.

My parents bought a house in the suburbs and moved us out of New York City when I was six years old, while my cousin slept in the living room of a tiny, roach-infested apartment until he graduated from college.

When we were in our early twenties, my cousin bemoaned his bad luck with women and wondered aloud why a fat guy like me always had a girlfriend.  I didn’t bother mentioning that personality might have something to do with it.  There are not a lot of people who find a wiseass endearing.

I haven’t felt the need to keep in contact with my cousin over the years.  At some level, I think I associate him with bad childhood memories.  So now he gets in touch with me via text and says he wants to call.  What can I do?  It would be rude to tell him not to call.  Maybe I need to give the guy another chance.  However, considering that he lives 3,000 miles away, what hope would we have for a normal familial relationship even under the best of circumstances?

I texted him back, telling him to call me on the weekend.  This should be interesting.

In text, I explained to him that I work in state government and that my wife and I enjoy a happy life.  “That’s good,” he responded.

Then he texted me a photo of himself with his wife.

His third wife.

My cousin has always chosen his partners badly.  When we were younger, I thought that, because he had difficulties with women, he settled for whatever he could get.  First it was his New York wife, my sister’s friend, with whom he had two sons.  Then he divorced her and married his New Jersey wife, who referred to him as “my prince.”  Then he divorced her and married his North Carolina wife, whom I hear has cancer and is undergoing the hell that is chemotherapy and radiation.

My sister says that, if NC wife passes on, Cuz will quickly move on to a fourth wife.  Her theory is that some people have a “marriage gene,” an innate trait that compels them to hitch their wagon to “anyone with an XX chromosome.”

My cousin’s mother died of cancer about a dozen years ago, and his father, already past the age of 70, remarried.  His new wife suffers from a variety of serious illnesses.  Sis is laying bets that, should she pass away, my uncle, now well in his eighties, will marry again.

My father says that a second marriage represents the triumph of hope over experience.  I wonder what a third marriage represents.

When a relationship fails, we often resort to the defense mechanism of blaming the shortcomings of our partner.  After a couple of failed marriages, however, what would make one think that a subsequent attempt would fare any better?  At some point, a reasonable person would take a good hard look in the mirror and say “maybe it’s me!”

After my sister divorced her husband, he stated that he “doesn’t want to die alone” and promptly remarried.  Someone should have broken the news to him that we all die alone.  Nevertheless, I get it that some people just can’t stand to be without a steady bed partner, particularly after years of marriage.  I get it that having lots of family, friends and coworkers isn’t the same thing as having a life partner.  Or an until-I-get-divorced-again partner, at any rate.

Or maybe my sister is right.  Perhaps there really is a marriage gene.

My Nephew, the Atheist

Apparently, my nephew is an atheist.

My sister informed me of this on the phone this evening, by way of explanation of why her adult son doesn’t want to attend a Passover Seder with her.  She says he doesn’t believe in God because he was “raised in science.”  I suppose this has something to do with having a father who is a computer engineer and a mother who was a biology major in college and now works in health care.  Still, he attended Hebrew school and had one of the coolest bar mitzvahs I have ever attended.  When my niece and nephew were kids, I spent countless Passovers and Rosh Hashannahs with them, attending synagogue and eating festive meals.

Regardless of how you were raised, I suppose you come to a time in your life when you have to decide matters of conscience for yourself.

My mother says my father is an atheist, but Dad denies it.  He says he doesn’t believe in an old man with a long white beard throwing down lightning bolts upon sinners, but that he does believe there must be some type of higher power.  He just has no idea what that might be.  Still, one would be excused for thinking him an atheist, as he claims to loathe religion, which he cites as the cause of most of the world’s problems.

One of these days, I’ll have to make a point of asking my nephew whether he’s really an atheist.  While having no need to follow the tenets of any faith may seem nominally liberating, I think it must be rather difficult explaining to others the absence of God in one’s life.  It’s one thing to have members of other faiths thinking that you’re going to hell for your beliefs.  That’s par for the course.  When you’re an atheist, however, I would assume that every faith would think you’re a sinner and a lost cause.

Of course, there is no need to explain one’s beliefs to anyone.  Many people of a variety of faiths or of no faith choose to keep their beliefs to themselves.  After all, it’s really no one else’s business.

While it is not necessary to believe in God to have your heart in the right place, to do things like helping the less fortunate and being active in one’s community, I find that it does help.  Although we all manage to justify whatever it is that we want to do, I suspect that it’s a little harder to stray off the straight and narrow when you know you’re being judged by the Divine and will have to answer to Him.  Personally, I find God to be a centering experience in my life, a means of reminding myself of what it’s all about.  And while I’ve known too many people without God in their lives who engage in repetitive destructive behaviors, there are plenty of believers who do this as well.

At least if I go wrong, I know that I’ll be able to ask God for forgiveness.  Real contrition, at least to me, doesn’t happen in a confessional.  It happens when you recognize the error of your ways, vow to take a different path, and follow it up with action toward living a more upright life.

Praying is great, and I do it daily, but I believe that it has limited value if you don’t “put feet on your prayers.”  It’s not enough to talk the talk; you also have to walk the walk.  We’ve all known those whose credo seems to be “church on Sunday, business as usual on Monday.”

Among my saddest experiences was the time I encouraged a coworker to attend religious services with me, but he refused due to his believe that God hates gays.  He obviously didn’t know God very well.  God doesn’t trade in hate, only in love.  If a particular house of worship doesn’t want your presence due to your sexual orientation, that means that the hearts of those involved are in the wrong place.  It has nothing to do with God.

But I can certainly see how those who feel rejected by churchgoers, or who feel that they’ve gotten the raw end of the deal all their lives or who feel that their prayers were never answered might deny the existence of God and consider themselves atheists.

Some atheists might believe that I am indulging in self-delusion by placing my faith in God.  They may find that believing in God is illogical and fails the test of science.  I wonder whether my nephew truly feels this way, or whether he is confusing God with religion.  Every religion has certain precepts that might be difficult for the modern man or woman to believe.  The faithful have all types of explanations for such things, but I fail to see why one must equate the rejection of dogma with the rejection of God Himself.

Ultimately, people come to God (or not) on their own terms.  Finding faith often requires just the right combination of life experiences.  I hope that, as my nephew makes his way through his young adulthood, he eventually finds his way back to the joy that I associate with faith in God.

I’d hate for him to miss out on that.

Hametz for Sale

Matzos

I have sold my hametz.

This is a first for me, which makes me laugh because, at my age, you don’t get a lot of firsts anymore.

For those unfamiliar with hametz, it is bread and other leavened products that Jewish law prohibits one from eating or even owning during the eight-day festival of Passover, now less than two weeks away.  For believers, this is a serious matter, as the Book of Exodus tells us that eating hametz during Passover will cause one to be cut off from the Jewish community.  While many in the modern world may scoff, this actually makes sense to me, as there is something unifying in knowing that fellow Jews all around this planet are going hametz-free.  It makes me feel a part of something greater, something really big, and this makes me feel good.  It fosters a sense of “belonging.”  Either you’re a part of it or you’re not.

The laws, customs and traditions surrounding hametz are quite involved.  I’m sure that it would take years of study to understand them fully, particularly as they apply to the complexities of our American culture.

Some things are clear.  For example, bread (bagels, tortillas and all that), most baked goods (cakes, pies, cookies, etc.), pasta and most cereal are hametz and forbidden during Passover.  Nearly anything that contains wheat or other grains is off limits because a tiny amount of water could begin the leavening process.

If that weren’t enough, Ashkenazic Jews (most American Jews) have a tradition of not eating kitniyot during Passover.  This custom is so strong and long-lived that it approaches the force of religious law.  What is kitniyot?  Essentially, it is rice, corn, beans, peas, peanuts and all their derivatives.  This is why Passover is hell on vegans.

Go to your cupboard and pick up the first can of food you see.  If you check the ingredients, chances are that corn syrup or another corn product is in there somewhere.  This is the reason that nearly anything that comes in a can or a box is, if not outright hametz, then likely at least kitniyot.

So what do observant Jews eat during Passover?  Fresh vegetables and fruit, some dairy products, meat, fish, eggs.  And lots of matzo, the crisp, unleavened Passover flatbread that is something like a very dry, very plain, giant tasteless cracker.

Well before Passover, we are supposed to start getting rid of all hametz in our possession.  I think of it as a form of spring cleaning.  Check out all your kitchen cabinets, shelves and drawers for all those misguided purchases from six months ago that you’re never going to eat.  If they’re still good, give them to the poor or to another person who will appreciate them.  If they’re expired, in the trash they go.

Then there is the matter of crumbs.  As anyone who has ever deep cleaned a house knows, they get into everything over the course of a year.  Most of us have a tendency to migrate food out of the kitchen:  We eat in the living room in front of the TV, we bring snacks into the family room and even into our bedrooms.  Chances are, bits of crumbs are to be found nearly everywhere.  After we’ve thoroughly vacuumed, swept and mopped, there is a lovely tradition that, right before Passover, we light a candle and walk around the house with it.  We use the candle to illuminate every corner where crumbs may be hiding.  We carry with us a feather and a wooden spoon for sweeping up even the tiniest bits of hametz crumbs, which we then throw away.

It has been decades now since I went about the house with the spoon, feather and candle.  I remember doing this as a child, although without the candle, as my parents rightly failed to trust that their klutzy son wouldn’t accidentally burn down their home.

Plan A for getting rid of hametz has always been to try to stop buying any and to eat up what you have on hand before Passover.  Around the time of the holiday of Purim, in March, observant Jews start thinking about this.  How can I use those cans of beans that have been sitting around since December?  Hmm, stew it is.

But what do you do with what’s left over?  As Passover approaches, there’s always some hametz remaining that you forgot about or didn’t manage to eat.  You still have half a sack of flour, some boxes of cookies, vinegar, cornstarch, pretzels and a sleeve of saltine crackers.  Then there’s that jar of olives and some soy sauce sitting in the back of your refrigerator.  You go to Plan B:  Give it away, throw it away or sell it.

Sell the odds and ends left over in your kitchen cabinets?  You read that right.  You can sign a document that gives a rabbi permission to sell your remaining hametz to a non-Jew.  This is a legal contract that specifies that the buyer agrees to sell the hametz back to you immediately upon the close of the festival of Passover.  This is a wonderful device, as it allows one to be “clean” of hametz for the duration of the holiday and still have those food items back for use after Passover.  While some view this as nothing short of fraud and artifice, the true beauty of it lies in the fact that even one who makes every effort to get rid of all hametz and needs nothing back after the holiday will unknowingly possess some impermissible crumbs somewhere.  Selling the hametz relieves the observant of worry that they are holding onto something that they shouldn’t be.

Modern technology has proved to be a help in the quest to get rid of one’s hametz.  It is now easy to sell your hametz online.  Sites such as www.chabad.org allow you to key in information regarding the possible location of hametz (your home and place of employment) and to give a rabbi permission to sell it for you (and guarantee its return to you at the end of Passover).  Some sites even send you a receipt with a confirmation number.  Generally, the service is free, with a donation to the organization in an amount of one’s choice encouraged.

I wish the internet had been around when I was a child.  Back then, you had to sell your hametz the old-fashioned way, by signing a card that contained a brief contractual statement.  Of course, a child, lacking legal responsibility, cannot do this.  My parents, unfortunately, thought the whole thing was a load of hooey.  As they sent me to an Orthodox religious school, this distressed me.

When my mother was growing up, any hametz that was to be saved until after Passover was placed into a single cabinet that was tied shut with a string or rope so that it was not accidentally accessed during Passover.  My father grew up in a non-religious household where none of this was an issue.

When I was a child, however, as Passover approached I would attempt to begin discarding cans and boxes of hametz that I knew we wouldn’t use before the holiday.  I remember tossing cans of corn syrup laden Hershey’s chocolate syrup in the trash, only to have them later picked out by my parents, who sternly rebuked me for wasting food that they had paid for.  I knew the cause was hopeless.  The best I could do was to be very careful so that I did not accidentally eat any hametz during Passover.  As long as I was living in my parents’ home, there was no way I could get rid of or sell items that were not Kosher for Passover.

We couldn’t go out to eat during Passover, so my mother had to cook every day.  Although I didn’t appreciate it then, this was surely a strain on her, as she worked a demanding job.  While she cooked Kosher for Passover food (my father, who did not keep kosher, would sneak out to McDonald’s for a hamburger when he couldn’t take it anymore), I had to be careful about my snacks and what I packed for my lunch to take to school.  No peanut butter and jelly this week.  Hard boiled eggs and matzo it is.  Throw an apple or a banana in that brown bag,

The problem was that I was a slob.  My bedroom was always a horrible mess, with detritus flung about wide and deep.  Once I approached my teenage years, the time of searching for crumbs with a feather and a wooden spoon had long passed.

One time, my parents left a brown paper bag full of peanuts amidst the piles on my bedroom floor so that I would find some hametz to get rid of when I performed my search.  By the time I was ten or eleven, however, I didn’t bother with such things anymore.  The bag sat there, unnoticed, for days.

To my horror, I finally came across it when Passover was nearly over.

Toxic Birthday

manure

Visiting my parents has increasingly turned into a toxic experience.  It destroys my peace of mind, brings back dozens of bad memories and is even dangerous to my marriage.  All this goes double when my sister is in attendance.

The photo above doesn’t even begin to express my feelings on the matter.

Last weekend, we headed south to California’s Central Valley to celebrate my mother’s 81st birthday.  On Saturday, my sister and her two adult children came for the day.  I particular looked forward to visiting with my niece, whom I hadn’t seen in a couple of years even though she lives only two hours away.  When I first arrived in California in 1995, she was five years old.  It’s hard to believe that she’s now in her twenties, an accomplished artist and hardworking Starbucks barista who is struggling to finish college.  Her parents divorced just as she was preparing to start high school, which turned her life upside down.  She has always had a tight bond with her brother, and the two spent years living with their father and his second family.  Recently, however, my nephew, a Silicon Valley engineer, moved out of the parental home in the face of constant arguing and bickering over visits by his mother and his grandparents.  This has been particularly hard on my niece, who has an extreme (probably unhealthy) emotional attachment to her brother.

The issue of where to go out for dinner should have been settled by the birthday girl.  My mother, however, seemed to be completely shut out of this decision making process.  My sister started carrying on about how Outback Steakhouse, which she knew is a favorite of my parents and my wife, is the most unhealthful choice possible and out of the question.  My niece ended up deciding on dinner because she counts every calorie and is therefore somewhat limited.  I thought every place served salad and fish, but what do I know.  As to the vegan in the family, well, let’s just say that I know enough to bring my own food when I visit my parents.

We ended up at Red Lobster, my niece’s choice and my father’s favorite.  My parents dine there once a week anyway.  I was able to get by with steamed broccoli, a baked potato and a salad without dressing or croutons.  My mother ordered her favorite fried filet of sole, even though she keeps kosher and I have reminded her on several occasions that RL fries with lard.  I kept my mouth shut and let her enjoy.  After all, she’s 81.  Perhaps I’m biased, but it seems to me that, once you get to that age, you should be able to do whatever the heck you want without anyone hassling you.

On the phone with my mother the week before, I had asked her for ideas for a birthday present.  My father’s birthday is always easy:  The man likes beer.  But my mother doesn’t drink, likes to make her own clothes and doesn’t appreciate wasting money on frills and nonsense.  So I was surprised when she asked for chocolate.  Milk chocolate, she informed me, she doesn’t like.  (This was news to me, as it was her secret vice throughout my childhood.)  “Dark chocolate,” she told me, “but not the bitter kind that you eat.”  My mother is aware that, although I am a Type 2 diabetic, I have a proclivity for indulging in low sugar, nondairy chocolate that is mostly pure cocoa.  It is very bitter indeed, and I enjoy it a little too much.

The very fact that my mother would ask for sweets is amazing to me.  In years gone by, she would claim to have no interest in candy or other junk food, although we all knew that this was far from the case.

Still, I thought we could do far better than merely buying a box of chocolates.  To me, that sounds like something you bring to a sick person who is in the hospital.  I had a better idea (or so I thought).  My mother has gotten into baking in the last few years.  She whips up wonderful apple pies, has tried her hand at challahs (although not to her satisfaction) and even baked cookies recently.  I thought I’d capitalize on this interest by finding a baking cookbook.  After all, she recently told me that she’d borrowed some books in this vein from the library and that they didn’t seem to have what she was looking for.  We headed for Barnes & Noble, where I found cake books, cookie books, French baking books, dessert cookbooks and just about everything in between.  (And, by the way, I was amazed at the number of vegan and vegetarian cookbooks I found on the shelves.  Too bad I don’t cook.)  The only problem is that most of the prices ranged from $40 to $90, which we found to be rather steep.  I suppose I am severely out of touch with what these things cost.  So, chocolate it is.  We found four or five different types of dark chocolate, from solid chocolate bars to chocolate-covered blueberries.  This turned out to be a win-win situation.  We actually got my mother what she wanted without blowing our budget.

I was delighted to have an extended conversation with my niece during dinner.  I expressed an interest in her work and was regaled with stories of the life of a barista.  It saddened me somewhat when I realized that, in the course of an hour, we talked more than we have in a decade or more.  If I email my nephew, I know he’ll email me back.  My niece, however, doesn’t operate that way.  She has neither the time nor the patience to bother with email.  It would be nice if I could take advantage of this opportunity to expand the dialogue and develop more of a relationship with my niece.  However, I doubt that this is a reasonable expectation.

Alas, things went downhill from there, as they always do when my family gets together.  My sister, who is an unemployed sonographer, began telling horror stories of her experiences working in hospitals (the one about the woman hiding a bag of Oreos under her sagging left breast was interesting, at least).  And then she began arguing with my mother and the screaming matches began apace.  My mother and my sister have a particularly toxic relationship that has been going on for years.  Sis calls my mother nearly every night to cry on her shoulder about her woes, and the conversation invariably deteriorates into an argument.  The next night, she does it again.  My mother refuses to stop taking my sister’s calls.  Mom says I don’t understand because I don’t have children of my own.  Perhaps this is a good thing.  This is one thing that I have no desire to understand.

My niece became more and more perturbed at the verbal violence that ensued between her mother and grandmother.  She is a sensitive sort and not as steeled to this passive-aggressive crap as the rest of us are.

It is difficult to adequately describe the extent of the vitriol that went on between my sister and my mother without providing examples:

#1

Sis: [complaining about the stuffiness in my parents’ home as we were lighting the candles on Mom’s birthday cake]  I’m dying!  I can’t stand it!  I’m gonna have bronchitis!

Mom: [yelling] So go outside if you can’t stand it!

#2

Sis:  I was really concerned about your memory!  Don’t mock me!

Mom: Don’t worry, I’ll let you know when I get Alzheimer’s.

Sis: You won’t know when you have Alzheimers!  You were reading to me and it sounded like bubrbubrbubbbb!

What else?  Oh, there was my mother’s description of how to choose a cucumber at the supermarket:  “It should be long.  You should squeeze it and it should be hard.  You want a stiff cucumber.”

And there was my sister’s description of her visit to Iceland.  She expressed regret that she was unable to locate the Phallus Museum in Reykjavik that she had heard so much about.  About the only species not represented, she read, was human beings.  She suggested that this should be remedied by her ex-husband offering his for a specimen, since he wasn’t using it anymore anyway.

This was in front of her children, mind you.

Ever the glutton for punishment, I texted my sister today to ask her how her new job was going.  I remembered that she was scheduled to start work at a Bay Area hospital on Wednesday.  There is no new job, she told me.  They checked her references and rescinded their offer.

Her previous job lasted all of two weeks.

It’s never her fault, mind you.  The fact that she is a loudmouth and can’t get along with anyone has nothing to do with it, either.

So I offered to show Sis how to apply for a job with state government, a solid job with great benefits and a good retirement package.  It doesn’t pay enough to meet her needs, she informed me, and anyway she’d be bored out of her skull.  She’d sooner continue being a nomad, running about the country as a traveling sonographer doing six- to eight-week stints in the Midwest.  Besides, she’s running after some guy in Santa Cruz now and doesn’t want him to get away.  If worst comes to worst, she says, she can always stay with my parents for a couple of months.  I reminded her that she didn’t last three days the last time she tried such a thing.  Inevitably, she makes my mother so upset that my father has no choice but to throw her out.

I guess you just can’t help some people and trying is an exercise in futility.

Oh, and now we’re all supposed to meet at my parents for Passover.

Do I want to subject myself to this after recent events?  Heck, no!  It’s always the same.  But here’s where the good old Jewish guilt creeps in.  How many more opportunities will I have to spend Passover with my parents?  What if this is my last chance?

But then I remember that I told my mother how grateful I was that Pastor Mom had gone out of her way to bake vegan hamantashen for me on Purim.  “Pretty soon you’ll have her converted,” was her reply, prior to making disparaging remarks about the fact that Pastor Mom used my sugar-free preserves instead of the traditional poppy seed filling.

Of course, I shared this with my wife, and no surprise that she about blew a gasket.

There is something, dear readers, called self-preservation.  So I think I’ll take a rain check on a family Passover this year.  They’ll just have to sing Khad Gadya without me.

Oh, how I look forward to breaking the news to my mother!  Maybe she’ll stop speaking to me for a few months again and we’ll all have some peace for a change.

Winning is Only the Beginning

Olympians and politicians have a lot in common.  They are heroes to some, reviled by others.  They have their sex and doping scandals.  They have their spectacular wins and their crushing defeats.  They toil in obscurity for years and make a lot of money when they finally succeed.

But there is one major difference between the two.  When an Olympian stands on the podium and sings the national anthem while a gold medal is hung around her neck, she’s done.  Sure, she may go for gold in another event or try for a repeat four years down the road.  But she doesn’t have to.  She can go home and be feted, interviewed and offered product endorsement deals.  Whatever she does after that, she has made it into the history books, there to stay forevermore.

By contrast, when a presidential candidate wins the election, he can’t go home and bask in the glory of his medal.  He has to run the country for four years.

So I think it’s time for the haters, the conspiracy theorists who insist that the president of the United States isn’t really an American and doesn’t love his country, those who oppose health care reform and who believe that the leader of the free world is allowing immigrants to take over his own nation, the ones with the Impeach Obama bumper stickers on their pickup trucks, to climb down off their high horses and soap boxes and start making a difference.

Yesterday, my young nephew, who is a hard-working manual laborer in the construction industry, pointed out that the older and fatter members of his family couldn’t do his job for an hour.  And he’s right; we couldn’t.  But we quickly retorted that he wouldn’t last an hour doing the technical and managerial tasks that we old, fat people do all day.

I venture to guess that the naysayers who have no respect for the office of the presidency couldn’t do Barack Obama’s job for a day.

So if you don’t appreciate what our president is doing, if you’re a shrieking Republican or a disappointed Democrat, now is the time to do something about it.  Our commander in chief is rapidly coming to the end of his term and will have to be replaced by the people.  The conventions and primaries will be here before you know it.

And so I say to you who spew invective on the AM radio talk shows and slap incendiary bumper stickers on your SUVs, go find us someone better.  Find a Republican or a Democrat who can not only win the election, but will build upon the accomplishments of his predecessor and exceed them.  If you don’t like what’s gone on in Washington for the past eight years, get up off your bohonkus and find someone worthy of the office of the presidency, someone who will set this great nation back on the right path, someone who believes in God and takes His messages to heart, someone who will care about his people enough to serve as a role model, someone who will satisfy you enough to shut up and let the rest of us have some peace for once.

Because on the day that your victorious candidate stands up to give his or her acceptance speech in November of next year, there won’t be any medals hung around his or her neck.  Yes, the national anthem will be sung, but at the end of it all, the winner can’t go home and accept product endorsements.

For after the final strains of “Hail to Chief” fade off into history, the president still has to run the country for four years.