On the Road: Stuck in the Zip Code Twilight Zone, Playing Double Dutch on the Freeway and Doing the Greasy

Southern California to Northern California.  Two (stuffed) cars are better than one.

From personal experience, the following is my advice on moving from one part of the state to another when said move involves packed-to-the-brim vehicles and many hundreds of miles of freeway driving:

  1. If clothes, furnishings and household utensils extend halfway up your rear window, you will be able to see only the roof of the little foreign car tailgating you for twenty miles or so.  How does that old saying go again?  If you’re not a hemorrhoid, get off my ass.
  2. When driving an overloaded vehicle, never play leapfrog with a yellow Penske van driven by a maniacal SOB who would just love to see you careen off the freeway into a ditch at 70 miles per hour.
  3. Consider investing in a bumper sticker bearing the logo: “I’ve just been laid off and I’m moving in with my mother-in-law.  Go ahead, make my day.”
  4. The right side view mirror is your friend, particularly if that end of your rear window is blocked by the upended legs of a chair or table and a pile of blankets and pillows.  When passing a vehicle on the interstate, it really is necessary to check said mirror before pulling back into the right hand lane.  Trust me on this one.
  5. Never, ever agree to follow anyone or to have anyone follow you for more than 500 miles.  Particularly if the anyone is your wife.

Having turned in the keys to our rental house on Thursday (my last day of work), we spent a night in a motel and hit the road at six o’clock Friday morning.  Both cars were packed to within an inch of their sorry automotive lives, including the trunk, the back seat, the floorboards and the passenger seat.  Just enough room for the driver remained.  Northward ho!

My wife followed me as we trekked across the desert from the Arizona border to Coachella, our first refueling stop.  We stopped on opposite sides of the same gas pump, with the idea that we’d fill one vehicle and then pass the nozzle over to fill the other one, all on the same credit card receipt.  This should be a snap, I thought, and we’ll be off in a jiffy.  What I forgot is that nothing ever goes smoothly when you’re traveling.

These days, most gas pumps in California require the purchaser to key in his or her billing zip code after swiping a credit card.  Having updated our records with the credit card company, I input our new zip code.  Incorrect.  Alrighty then, let’s try the zip code we just left an hour and a half ago.  Incorrect.  (Sigh.)  Let’s go back to the new zip code, keying it very carefully, one digit at a time.

DENIED, flashed the display.

What do you mean, “denied?”  It can’t be denied!  We have used this same credit card forever.  Well, maybe not forever, but at least since our credit card number was stolen the last time we moved.  It seems we had entered the Twilight Zone, a strange purgatory between zip codes where matter and anti-matter collide and you simply cease to exist.

Now what?  Fortunately, we had cash on us.  But I was stewing.  This sort of petty inconvenience gets me riled up way beyond anything remotely warranted.  And then I went inside the truck stop to use the rest room, only to find that every single stall in the men’s room was occupied.  All six of them.  What the hell?  Have I stumbled upon a pooping convention?  Or has every traveler on the I-10, in some cosmic coincidence, chosen this exact moment to take a dump?  I really, really wanted to say bad words.  Instead, I got back in the Mercury and roared over the San Gorgonio Pass on the way to our prearranged breakfast stop in Calimesa.

I had suggested stopping at Bob’s Big Boy, although I couldn’t remember exactly which exit to take.  “I think it’s County Line Road,” said my wife the previous night.  “Why don’t you look it up on your phone?”

Of course I didn’t look it up on my phone.  And of course County Line Road was not the correct exit.

What we needed was the exit before County Line Road.  My wife figured this out easily, but I, being thick in the brain, did not.  She zoomed ahead of me and exited at County Line Road while I followed her back onto the eastbound freeway to backtrack to our correct exit.

Now it was her turn to fume.  “Didn’t you see the huge sign?” she demanded.

“No,” I admitted sheepishly.

“Didn’t you hear me honking and honking?”

With the windows closed, the air conditioner blowing and Rod Stewart serenading me through my iPod?  Not a chance.

At least we lucked out with a fabulous breakfast.  Big Boy’s breakfast buffet was as good as I remembered it from back east, with bacon and sausage for my wife and oatmeal, fruit and home fried potatoes for me.

We agreed to gas up before hitting the freeway again.  Now, one would think that I could successfully follow another vehicle less than a mile to a filling station.  No such luck.  This is me we’re talking about, remember.  Mr. Thick.

Somehow, I didn’t see where my wife turned off, and then missed the gas station as I drove right by it.  After driving a couple of miles down the road, I realized that I must have made a mistake somewhere along the way.  I pulled into Del Taco and checked my phone.  Sure enough, she had texted me.  “You missed the gas station.”

“Going back now,” I responded, backtracking and, miraculously, noticing the big Arco sign this time around.

“Clearly, this is not working!” my wife exclaimed as I pulled up to the pumps.  She was spitting mad.

And indeed, clearly it was not.  As the saying goes:  “Do not lead, as I may not follow.  Do not follow, as I may not lead.  Just walk beside me and be my friend.”  If you can figure out how this applies to doing the double dutch down the freeway, by all means let me know.

I actually managed to successfully follow my wife about 90 miles down the 210 through Pasadena and onto the I-5, stopping only once to switch cars when my leg was cramping so badly that I could barely lift it to the brake pedal.  You should know that the I-5 interchange involves six lanes of traffic and the Highway 14 split.  So I promptly lost sight of my wife again.  And caught up with her just as she was exiting at Newhall.  Now, I had a feeling she might stop at Newhall, as we have stopped there many times before and it is one of the last decent stopping places before heading over the Grapevine.  The only problem was that I didn’t actually see my wife get off the freeway and, fortunately for me, just caught a glimpse of her car at the very last second that I could turn the wheel without missing the exit entirely.

From Newhall, we chugged over the ‘vine and into our regular overnight rest stop in Buttonwillow, Kern County.  “See if you can get a room in the front,” my wife asked as I prepared to go in and register.  “Hurry!” she added, as she saw another guest coming from behind — another guest who might take the last room in the front.  I rushed over to the door and, pulling it open, realized that I had just entered the laundry area.  The other door, behind me, was the door to the registration area, that is, the area where the other guest was busily paying for her room at the counter.  “Face it,” I thought, “I can’t do anything right.”  I feel a deep, abiding kinship with Charlie Brown.  (Although, so far, no one has called me a blockhead.  Wishy-washy, maybe.)

The importance of renting a motel room in the front of the property is twofold:  First, you want to avoid having to drag your suitcases down an exterior corridor or over the grassy area by the pool.  Second, when you are traveling with two loaded-down cars, it is helpful to be able to see them directly outside your window so that when some miscreant breaks into them in the middle of the night, at least you can dial 911 and yell “help, help, oh help” while the thief makes off with all your possessions.  We didn’t really need all that old stuff anyway, now did we?

When the woman who hurried in front of me to the registration desk finally finished, I shuffled up to the clerk to learn that there was exactly one room left unrented in the front of the property.  But it was a smoking room (choke, gag).  I texted my wife to see whether she wanted the smoking room.  “Sure,” came back the reply.

Suffice it to say that we did indeed choke and gag for most of the night.  We borrowed some air freshener from the front desk, but it didn’t really help very much.  The smoke just seeps into your lungs, your hair and your clothes.  And although no one broke into our cars, we both wished we had taken a room in the back and bump-bump-bumped the suitcases over the lawn by the pool (particularly when the air conditioning quit on us about midnight).

Then came the matter of dinner.  We saw a barbecue joint, an Indian restaurant that received poor reviews online, a plethora of fast food establishments and Denny’s.  We settled for Denny’s, having visited this particular location on many occasions and having been impressed by their excellent service.  For road food, Denny’s is actually fairly dependable.

Except not this time.  My wife ordered bacon and toast.  Her toast was actually cold.  “Now, how can you mess up toast?” you may ask.  Leave it to Denny’s, they managed.  My wife is generally reluctant to send any dish back to the kitchen, no matter how bad it is.  After all, we’ve read the horror stories about how such dishes are, shall we say “adulterated,” before being returned to the table.  But this time, the toast was so inedible that my wife did send it back.  Did they prepare her a new order of toast?  Heck, no!  They simply warmed it up and brought it back out.

As for her bacon, she had ordered it done crispy.  Instead it came out done greasy.  Greasy and inedible.

So much for depending on Denny’s (although I must say that my veggie burger and six little pieces of broccoli were excellent).

In the morning, we headed into the home stretch, driving more than two hours down the road before stopping for breakfast at a truck stop in Santa Nella, Merced County.  We stopped here for dinner recently and were singularly unimpressed.  For the sake of convenience, however, we decided to give their breakfast a chance.  Their breakfast buffet was actually not bad at all.

As it was late in the morning when we arrived, the staff was just starting to put out the salad bar for lunch.  We asked whether salad was included with the breakfast buffet and were told no, only the soup was included.  Say what?  Perhaps the waitress didn’t know what she was talking about.  After all, we heard her telling diners at a nearby table that she had worked at this truck stop for 41 years.  “It’s time for her to retire,” I told my wife.  And I believe she did just that.  Once she took our order and wrote up a sales slip for two buffets, we never saw her again.  We had to shanghai other staff members to refill our beverages.

If you follow this blog, you may recognize this truck stop as the place where I recently engaged in a Spanglish conversation with the nice (impatient) janitor lady through the stall door.  This time, there was no janitor in evidence, but the only stall available (unlike Coachella, at least there was one) had a broken lock.  I am pleased to report that only two gentlemen walked in on me while I was taking a crap.  The older one seemed slightly embarrassed and reached in to close the stall door behind him.  The younger guy just seemed pissed off.  Hey, this is not exactly my cup of tea either, young dude.  Do you think I enjoy showing off my fat butt to total strangers at a truck stop on the I-5?

We arrived safe and sound in our new home in northern California, just in time to gather with family and friends to celebrate my niece’s seventeenth birthday.  It only took us a day and a half to get both cars completely unloaded, although the house is still a mess of half-empty boxes and clothes strewn every which way.  But we were both very glad to finally get off the road.

For a few days, anyway.  Tuesday we head back to southern California.  Sometimes we feel like Sisyphus, rolling the boulder up and down the I-5.

 

How to Eat a Grapefruit with a Plastic Fork: A Sukkot Story

This is a story about Sukkot.

If you are not familiar with this weeklong Jewish holiday (often translated into English as Feast of Tabernacles or Feast of Booths), you have a lot of company.  Although Sukkot is a major holiday and one of our shalosh regolim (three festivals), along with Passover and Shavuot (Feast of Weeks), even many Jews are unfamiliar with it.

The holiday has its origins in the Biblical command “on the fifteenth day of this seventh month is the festival of booths, seven days for the Lord.”  Leviticus 23:24

The very sound of the word “booths” makes me laugh.  The image that comes to my mind is that of a toll both on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey.  Actually, the booths referred to in Leviticus were temporary shelters that were hastily erected using leaves, branches and whatever natural material was at hand while the Jews wandered through the desert for forty years.

Sukkot is a fall festival that occurs at the time of the harvest.  Hence, it is sometimes referred to as the Festival of Ingathering.  It makes one wonder whether makeshift dwellings might have been erected in the fields at the peak of the harvest when it may have been too far for the hands to travel between their homes and the fields daily.

These days, the sukkah or booth is often erected of bamboo poles or 2x4s, with sod, branches and leaves used for a loose covering.  It is traditional to eat all one’s meals in the sukkah for a week, and the Orthodox make it large enough so that they can sleep in it and watch the stars through the spaces in the thatched roof.  Kids love this form of camping out in the backyard.

Aside from the sukkah itself, the other major tradition of this festival is the waving of the lulav and etrog (palm fronds and citron).  As harvest and fertility symbols, they remind us nonfarming city dweller types of the enormous bounty with which we have been blessed by God.

When I lived in areas where synagogues were available, I usually made an effort to go to worship and eat a meal in the sukkah at least once during the holiday.  In the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, however, it is easy to forget about this colorful holiday entirely.  I have been reading online that many assimilated Jews have never even heard of it.  Kind of sad, really.

I recall a rabbi who once related to the congregation in my presence that many Orthodox Jews in Israel decorate their sukkot with strings of colored Christmas lights.  Seems like a bit of an irony there.  Most of the sukkot I have seen in the United States have been decorated with pine cones, fruit and pictures drawn by children.

I am about the most unhandy person you can imagine, and there is exactly zero chance of me ever attempting to construct my own sukkah.  Nevertheless, our living situation this week has unintentionally helped me to feel a connection to the wandering Jews of old.

We are in the process of moving and, with three days left in our current residence, the place is rather empty.  Due to the expense of moving furniture and the fact that we are moving in to my mother-in-law’s fully furnished home, we have sold or donated just about everything.  The TV went a week ago; over the weekend, we sold the living room set, the kitchen set, the washer and the dryer.  All that remains to find homes are the refrigerator and our bed, which will be picked up by their new owners on Wednesday night and Thursday, respectively.

So my wife and I have been sitting in canvas camp chairs in our big empty living room the past few nights.  Instead of television, we have the music we’ve downloaded onto our smart phones.  We moved our folding table into the living room to serve as a staging area for packing (see photo); one edge remains bare so that we can pull up folding chairs and eat.  As for eating, well, we are doing our best to use up all of our refrigerated and frozen food.  We are almost there.  Needless to say, this can result in some rather interesting and humorous meals.  No surprise that a pizza was ordered today.

staging area

Aside from food itself, the question remains as to what to use for utensils with which to eat said food.  The majority of our dishes, pans and flatware have served us for entirely too many years and will not be traveling north with us.  All of our forks and spoons were discarded.

Last night, I awoke at about 2 AM with my stomach rumbling and complaining that the needle was on Empty.  I hadn’t eaten much in the way of dinner.  I hauled myself out of bed, headed for the kitchen and began rummaging among the dribs and drabs of our remaining food.  In the fruit bin, I found the last of our citrus supply, one lonely grapefruit.  But it was a fat, juicy grapefruit.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I cut my grapefruit in half and then scoop out the sections with a spoon.  The problem is you have to have a spoon.  The only utensil available was a plastic fork.  How on earth would I eat a grapefruit with a plastic fork?

Well, I am living proof that it can be done.  By using the plastic tines to prise out as much of the flesh as possible from each section, it then becomes possible to use one’s fingers to grab onto the pulpy parts and pull the remainder of the section of the grapefruit half.  This is a bit of a time-consuming process, particularly if you intend to eat the entire grapefruit.  On a paper plate while seated on a folding chair at two in the morning.

Although I haven’t been able to attend a Sukkot service or sit in a sukkah to eat a meal this year, I believe I’ve gotten a taste of what it’s like to camp out in a temporary dwelling for a few days.  And if I am not able to wave the lulav or look up at the stars through my thatched roof this time, I just have to step outside to watch the palms up and down the street rustling in the breeze and to observe the canopy of stars that dots the sky every night out here in the middle of the desert.

 

On Seeking Forgiveness in a Mexican Restaurant

Earlier this week, friends of ours drove out from Los Angeles to provide new homes for our big screen TV and our antique china cabinet.  We are moving 641 miles north at the end of this week and “everything must go.”

I thought it was cool when our friends texted my wife a photo of the china cabinet in its new location in their house.  It’s a little easier to say goodbye to an old friend when you have a visual of it settled comfortably into its new digs.

We took our friends to dinner during their overnight visit, which also afforded us an opportunity to say goodbye to our favorite little Mexican restaurant here in town.  Husband, who pastors a church in the South Bay, sat across from me as we tucked into our burritos, tacos and chile rellenos.  Wife began gushing over the delicious Rosh Hashannah dinner that her beloved prepared a few weeks ago, complete with all the traditional dishes and the traditional blessings.  This was a bit awkward, as I’ve been a practicing Jew for more than half a century, and I am not familiar with any traditional Rosh Hashannah dishes other than tizmmes and apples dipped in honey.  I also don’t know of any traditional Rosh Hashannah blessings beyond “l’shannah tovah” and “may you be recorded in the Book of Life.”  The blessing to which she referred had something to do with salvation, she told me.  Salvation?  Hmm, primarily a Christian concept, I responded.  She reminded me of the salvation that occurred when we were freed from slavery at the hands of the Egyptians.  True, I said, although I don’t normally think of the Exodus in terms of “salvation.”

I have never associated the concept of salvation with Rosh Hashannah, but perhaps that is a way of establishing a connection that would make our holiday more relevant to Christians.  To me, the concept of salvation is inextricably entwined with Jesus, who, let’s face it, sought to “save” the people from many of the very things that we Jews hold dear.

What really took me aback, however, was when husband brought up Yom Kippur.  “Did you afflict your soul?” he asked.

Why, yes, I did, I answered.  I suspect his question was asked with sincerity, although (at least to me) it came off as tinged with sarcasm at the time.  I have to assume that, as he is a pastor, he was not attempting to belittle my beliefs.  But if he was trying to make me think, it worked.

This was one of only a handful of times that my rear end was not planted firmly in a seat in synagogue for most of the day on Yom Kippur.  Being our holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur is a time when I generally find my way into shul regardless of where my wanderings take me.  Out here in the desert, however, it’s not so easy.  Two years ago, we trekked to makeshift services in a hotel ballroom 2½ hours away in the Phoenix area.  Last year, we attended Rosh Hashannah services in San Luis Obispo on the central coast and Yom Kippur services in Palm Springs.  With no Jews to speak of in our little desert oasis, our choices consist of either traveling or making do.  This year, there was no way for me to get out of work early enough to travel, eat before the fast and still make Kol Nidre services.  So the “make do” option was the order of the day.

This meant that I sat on the sofa in our living room (our beautiful red sofa, now sold… did I mention that I hate moving?) with my mahzor and, wearing my frayed purple kippa, spending hours chanting the Yom Kippur service.  Just like in shul, I stood for as much of the Shmonah Esrei (silent devotion) as my back and knees would allow.  The remainder of the service I chanted aloud, alternating between the Hebrew and the English, doing my best to correctly pronounce the bits that are in ancient Aramaic.  My wife sat in the chair opposite me as I droned on for hours in a language that means nothing to her.  God bless her for being so patient with me.

My favorite part of the Yom Kippur service has long been the reading of the Biblical book of Jonah, which we do late in the afternoon.  Before we reach that point, however, we recite the vidui, the ancient formula for the confession of sins, over and over during various parts of the service.  Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu (we have been guilty, we have betrayed, we have stolen), and on and on goes the list of our transgressions.  Whether I recite this in the Hebrew or the English, it makes me feel dirty.  Positively filthy with sin.  It’s like a physical thing; I imagine sin covering me with a sticky stink as if I had just stumbled out of a miasmic swamp.

And indeed, I have.  The miasmic swamp is our day-to-day lives in which we are more concerned about ourselves than about others, in which we “do what we have to do” to get ahead, crushing the spirits of those upon whose backs we tread without a thought.  The vidui ends with “we have gone astray, we have led others astray,” as poignant an indictment of our misdeeds as one could imagine.  The fact that we have debased ourselves to every kind of sin should be bad enough.  But let us not forget that every action in which we engage, every word that we speak, consciously or unconsciously influences others.  Someone, sooner or later, is going to follow our example.  Because that’s what we, as human beings, do.

The Avinu Malkeinu (“our father, our king”) is the other prayer that I have trouble with.  This lengthy list of our personal failings goes on for two pages of printed text and never ceases to get me choked up with emotion.  For the sin which we have committed in spurning parents and teachers.  (My parents are about to celebrate their eightieth birthday.  How much longer are they going to be around?  Why don’t I give them more attention?)  For the sin which we have committed in speaking guile.  (I am not known for holding my tongue, or my keyboard for that matter.  When am I going to learn to speak more kindly, to recognize my employees for the little miracles they create every day, to tell my wife how much I love her more often?)  For the sin which we have committed in eating and drinking.  (I can’t even begin to enumerate my sins on this score.  But since Yom Kippur I have (mostly) kept my resolution to eat a more healthy diet, so perhaps there is hope for me yet.)

The final verse of Avinu Malkeinu is sung in unison by the congregation, a moving plea to the Almighty to forgive our human frailities and to give us another chance to be the better people we are capable of being rather than executing the severe decree that we so justly deserve.  I love the tune of this particular hymn, but I can’t get to the end of it without my voice cracking.  I am overcome with emotion every time.

So I think I was telling our friends the truth when I answered that yes, I did afflict my soul on Yom Kippur.  I only wish I had taken time to go into the details of the vidui and the Avinu Malkeinu so that my response didn’t sound so facile.

Yom Kippur may seem like an anachronism to some, but I am one of those who take its message personally.  Which, of course, is what Yom Kippur is all about.  But suffice it to say that it is difficult to explain this adequately in a Mexican restaurant over chile rellenos.  And I can’t begin to fathom how I might translate this message into terms that would be meaningful to a committed Christian.

 

A Times Roman Romance

Times

I have always been a fan of the Times Roman typeface.

Even before the home computer took off on its sprint to ubiquity, back in the Dark Ages of the 1970s and 1980s when I thought I had a career as a typesetter, I admired the crispness of the font and the way the serifs march across the page like an endless rank of Roman foot soldiers.  (Don’t feel badly if you don’t know what a typesetter is.  It is an ancient line of work that goes back to the time of Gutenberg, but barely exists anymore in the United States.  I hate you, Microsoft Word.)

Some folks eschew Times Roman, claiming that it is unbearably mainstream and boring, the typeface equivalent of a stodgy Wall Street banker in a three-piece suit.  Well, just remember that said stodgy banker is earning millions of dollars a year and living in a penthouse suite, while Comic Sans and Poor Richard are selling their artwork on the sidewalk and living off the nickels that passersby toss into their tip cups.

Those who can’t stand my friend TR can always defect across the tracks to the land of Arial.  You think Times Roman is boring?  Arial doesn’t even have serifs, for heaven’s sake.  Because Sir Arial goes stumping across the page without feet, some insist that it is a cleaner typeface for the purposes of business correspondence.

Now, I’m not prejudiced or anything.  I have lots of friends that are sans serif fonts.  Just last week I was chatting with Tahoma over in a footnote (I just had to rub it in by taking a footless font out to a footnote) and once I had a few too many at a pica bar and inadvisably went all right justify and everything with Verdana.  You can bet I regretted that one in the morning.

To me, Arial is the nebbish of fonts, the nondescript mouse who gets dizzy in revolving doors and still has its momma wash its ascenders at the age of forty.

There are sophisticates out there who are tired of the constant bickering between Times Roman and Arial, yell for a pox on both their houses, and run off to have tawdry affairs with Calibri and Palatino.

I don’t approve of this profligate kind of behavior, mind you.  But I do see where these folks are coming from.  After all, it’s gotten to the point where TR and Arial remind me of the Republicans and Democrats in Congress.  They sit across the aisle from each other, call each other names and spend more time blustering and filibustering than getting anything done.

Call me narrow-minded, but I am not one of those fence sitters who stay home on Election Day or throw away their votes on the likes of Viner Hand Tooled.  I have staked out my position in favor of Times Roman and I’m stickin’ to it.

Those who don’t like it can go to Helvetica and leave me the Helios alone.

 

A Jew in Church

star cross

My mother-in-law, whose home we will be sharing starting next week, pastors a tiny church in northern California.  She is a woman of God in the truest sense.  She devotes her life to improving the lives of others.  And she surrounds herself with other like-minded people, creating circles of love that extend outward to encompass many in the community.

On one of our recent visits, we happened to be there on Sunday, so I attended Sunday school and church services.  For a lifelong Jew to enter the world of Pentecostalism is quite an experience and could in itself be the subject of an entire blog post.  For now, let’s just say that at Christmastime, I stood in the pulpit, explained the story of Hanukkah to the congregants, and sang Maos Tzur in Hebrew.  Let others create bucket lists, but for me this could properly be added to the list of things I never imagined I’d do in a million, billion years.

I was seventeen years old the first time I set foot inside a church.  I was a college freshman and had bused across the Hudson River with the choir to participate in a choral competition at the Vassar College chapel in Poughkeepsie, New York.  I almost backed out at the last minute.  I felt guilty about going into one of those places.  You know, one of those places where the goyim pray.  I was duly impressed by the sweeping majesty of the sanctuary while I ignored the crucifix and tried not to look at the images etched into the stained glass windows.  I later told my father about the experience, but knew I could never discuss it with my mother.  Anyway, we did poorly in the competition and I stayed out of churches for a while after that.

Later on, I managed to rack up a series of Christian girlfriends, which inevitably led me into other churches in other states.  There was the one with the three-year old daughter who I helped to memorize the Lord’s Prayer.  (Of course, I had to learn it myself first.  And I nearly fell on the floor when I discovered that my father knew every word.)  Then there was the other one who alley-catted around on me but still liked to be in the pew, singing along with the hymns come Sunday.  And if I am to be honest, I must admit that there were times when I was lonely enough to attend church with a friend or two from work.

Many years later, I met and married my true love, who I had discovered, to my delight, held most of the same values that I do.  She happens to be a Christian.  Thus, I gradually learned that, although I know I could never be a Christian myself, the distance between Jews and Christians is really rather slim.  The two faiths are no more than twin branches of the same tree.  In the words of Shakespeare, “what’s in a name?”

I remember well the day I broke the news to my mother that I had asked my shiksha girlfriend to marry me and that she had actually said yes.  The conversation went something like this:

Mom: “What kind of name is Donna?  Italian?”

Me: “No.  Way back, I think they are of English ancestry.”

Mom: “What does her father do?”

Me: “He’s dead.  He worked for the railroad for many years.”

Mom: “Does her mother work?”

Me: “Yes, she pastors a church.”

Mom: “I mean for a living.”

I didn’t tell my mother about the day just a week before that I knew for sure that Donna and I were meant to be together forever.  I knew my mother wouldn’t understand about the power of prayer and how God can out of the blue one day knock you over the head like he knocked Paul off his donkey on the road to Damascus.

But now, fourteen years later, I did tell the story in Sunday school when we were up north visiting my wife’s family.  She herself was not in attendance, as she had decided to sleep in.  But the Sunday school teacher was expounding upon the subject of how the Lord knows our needs and provides for them, and she had asked for personal testimony, and I just couldn’t resist sharing.

I was crazy as a loon about Donna (still am, by the way) and I had a feeling she kind of liked me, too.  Okay, so maybe I was acting more than a bit like a giddy schoolboy even though I was just a few months shy of age forty.  What I really wanted to do was buy a ring, throw caution to the winds, and find out if I really had a chance.  The problem was that overtime had dried up at work, I had no savings to speak of, and I had no idea where I would find the money to buy a decent ring.  I had priced some rings, and I knew that I would need at least $700.  Seven hundred dollars that I didn’t have.

That’s when I started doubting myself.  Perhaps, I thought, this was not meant to be after all.  Who was I kidding?  Making a paltry hourly wage, I knew I couldn’t afford marriage.  And did I really want to impose this on the object of my affections?  Did I want to saddle her with a life of poverty?  No, of course not!

It was a night when I began to feel depressed about the situation, and I began to pray.  “Lord, if this is meant to be, please show me a sign.”  I went to sleep wondering if I was fooling myself, if God would really hear my prayer, or if He had anything to do with this at all.

In the morning, I got ready for work and, when I headed out the door of my apartment, I noticed there was an envelope sticking out of my mailbox.  Removing it, I saw that it was from PG&E, the electric company.  “What do they want?” I thought.  “My bill is paid up.”

I tore open the envelope as I walked to the car.  You could have knocked me over with a feather when I saw that it was a check in the amount of (you guessed it) $700.  I had totally forgotten that I had paid that amount as a deposit more than a year earlier and had no idea that I was entitled to a refund.

“Okay, God, I get it!” I said aloud.  It was as if all the lights had suddenly turned green.  I cashed the check and purchased the ring that very day.

The Sunday school teacher was beaming.  When I reached this point in my story, she blurted out: “You forgot the best part!  She said yes!”  I couldn’t agree more.

And so, the Jew in the Pentecostal church took the opportunity to testify to the fact that God does indeed know our needs and that He provides for them, often in some of the most improbable ways.

I write this as a reminder to myself.  I will be laid off from work at the end of next week and I am starting to panic about being unemployed.  But I know that, somehow, some way, when this door closes, God will open another.  He always does.

 

Change is in the Air

There is a certain amount of trepidation inevitably associated with an impending change in life circumstances.  In my case, at least I’ve had enough advance notice to make some plans.  I have two more weeks of working left, after which my job will be eliminated and we will be moving more than 600 miles away.

The specter of unemployment looms large.  When I am feeling sorry for myself, I try to remember that others are not so lucky.  Many have life changes thrust upon them without any notice at all.  A family member dies, you end up in a catastrophic wreck on the freeway on the way to work, the boss summarily fires you, a storm destroys your house.  These kinds of things happen suddenly, so I need to be grateful that at least we’ve known this one was coming for a while now.

I try to talk myself into a positive attitude.  “It could be worse,” I say.  “At least we have a place to go.  It’s all relative.”  Or, in this case, it’s all relatives.

I love my wife’s family dearly, really I do.  When we’re up there, they treat me like visiting royalty.  But living with them?  Oh dear.

My wife and I are accustomed to our privacy.  It’s just the two of us in a big old rental house in the center of town.  Okay, so it’s a very small town way out in the desert and the house is being eaten up by termites.  But we have two bathrooms, and there are many times when my wife is occupying one and I am occupying the other.  His and hers thrones.

“It’s not so bad,” I was telling my mother on the phone the other night.  “There’s a bathroom just outside the church next door and I already have a key.”  I have visions of running across the lawn when a diarrhea attack hits at two in the morning.  On the plus side, I recently learned that my cell phone has a flashlight on it.

Gone are the days of leaving the bathroom door open, as well as the days of prancing back and forth to the shower in the altogether.

It’s alright though.  We will be living with my mother-in-law, but she bakes terrific pies and enjoys discussing the Bible even more than I do.  And she actually reads this blog, which is more than I can say for my own family.

My 17 year old niece and her little daughter, who is about to celebrate her first birthday, live just a few miles away.  My niece is attending the local community college and I hear that the little one has new day care arrangements that are about to start.  Um, that would be us.

Auntie and uncle are on the way.  This fact became jarringly real to me today when my wife and I, lazing in bed of a Sunday morning, actually had an extended conversation about what delectables the finicky grandniece might eat if we turned them into finger foods by cutting them in small pieces, and whether we ought to cut the crusts off the bread before serving her cheese toast.  Next thing I know, we’ll be discussing toilet training.

And no, I’ve never changed a diaper in all my life.  Something tells me I’m about to learn how, though.

 

Grandpa’s Jokes

A week ago my calendar reminded me of a holiday called “Grandparents’ Day.”  It’s not that I don’t believe my trusty calendar, but I can’t recall any such holiday in my childhood days.  I was crazy about my grandparents, and as far as I was concerned, every day was Grandparents’ Day.  Despite my suspicions that the day is being marked as a means of generating revenue for Hallmark and other tchotchke mongers, I will mark the occasion by sharing some of my standout memories of my years with my maternal grandfather.

I was always closer to my mother’s parents than to my father’s parents, both emotionally and geographically.  When I was really young, we all lived in the same apartment building, us on the fourth floor, my mom’s folks on the ground floor.  I barely remember my grandmother; she died just before I turned six.  My grandfather remarried and moved to another building about a block away.  We moved to the suburbs the same year, but even then, we were only about 30 minutes away from Grandpa R.  As for my paternal grandparents, they lived two hours away in Connecticut until they moved to Florida when I was ten.

To my cousin, he was always Grandpa Gus, but I don’t think he’d mind me calling him Grandpa R.  After all, he did wear a belt buckle with a big R on it.  In his younger days, I am told, he enjoyed singing, playing the mandolin and harmonica, and telling jokes.  He was a big fan of Jack Benny and Jackie Gleason.  The telling jokes part stayed with him into his later years.

Several months might go by without us seeing each other, but this did nothing to diminish our special bond.  Even after he stopped driving, if there were a family event in the offing, I knew he’d be there.  We’d make arrangements to trek down to the Bronx and pick him up.  He traveled to upstate New York with us to attend my high school graduation and my college graduation.  My Florida grandparents lived too far away to attend.

Grandpa R came over on the boat from Poland in the 1920s.  Fifty years later, his speech still bore a distinct Eastern European accent and was peppered with Yiddishisms. This made his jokes funnier, particularly when he punctuated the punch line with a spirited “woo-hoo!”

Many of Grandpa’s jokes were more along the lines of witty observations than what you might expect to hear from a comedian.  For example, he enjoyed drinking seltzer (a habit I continue), which he always referred to in Yiddish as greps-wasser (“belch water”).  To this day, I can’t pour a glass of club soda without thinking of that.

Unwrapping a fresh loaf of rye bread from the corner bakery, he’d feign a serious look and tell me “if you eat bread for a hundred years, you’ll live a long time.”  Groaners like these were his stock in trade.  I thought they were horribly corny, but even as I rolled my eyes, I couldn’t help but crack a smile.

I can no longer remember all the details of an extended shaggy dog story he would tell me about a man who came over from the Old Country with extremely limited English language skills. Even though the man ate out in restaurants most days, he was sick of being served the same meal every evening, regardless of which restaurant he visited.  It turns out that he thought the English phrase for “food” was “epple pie und coffee.”

Grandpa had a small scar on his forehead in the shape of a circle.  As a kid, I would ask him how he got that hole in his head.  He’d say he didn’t know what I was talking about.  “The scar,” I’d clarify, thinking he didn’t understand what I was asking.  “A scar?” he’d ask, feigning shock, “I need a scar like a hole in the head!”

“How do you know when it’s time to go to the dentist?” he asked.  “I don’t know,” I’d reply, more than a little annoyed.  “Tooth hurty!” he’d shout with glee.  He could see by my face that I was clueless.  “Tooth hurty!” he’d repeat.  Blank stare from me.  Then, real slowly, he’d say “Twooooo thirty!”  Oh geez, I’d think, I should have known.  That’s Grandpa for you.

Grandpa R has been gone for 33 years now, but I don’t need a special holiday to remember him by.  His birthday was September 7, and I never fail to think of him and relive our wonderful times together every time that date rolls around, year after year.

Happy birthday, Grandpa.  Yom hu’ledet sameakh.