Hanukkah and the Big Eight-O

cake
menorah

MADERA

My parents presented each of us with Hanukkah gifts.  Not a first, but sufficiently rare to have been a surprise.

Even when my sisters and I were children, gift-giving was generally designated for birthdays.  For Hanukkah, we typically received a little mesh bag of chocolate “gold coins,” perhaps accompanied by a handful of real coins, essential to the playing of dreidl.

But Hanukkah was still special to me.  The lighting of the colored candles, the singing and the latkes with applesauce and sour cream constituted sufficient pageantry to make an impression.

Although those celebrating Christmas with enormous piles of presents under the tree might beg to differ, we lacked for nothing.  If we hankered after something reasonable in, say, March or August, one way or another we usually got it (sooner or later).  And avoiding mindless shopping based on the page of the calendar helped us to avoid destructive habits of acquisitiveness, avarice and poor money management.

So it was a bit of a surprise when my mother brought out a box of wrapped gifts and began distributing them.  There were puzzles, lotions, sachets, candy and, for me, a bag of coffee ice cream flavored coffee, already ground.  I know it will be delicious.

Meanwhile, my sister and her husband outdid themselves in the kitchen.  This was my first taste of broiled tofu (we usually sautée it), which was heavenly.  And there was a homemade apple pie, vegan and gluten-free.  For the second day running, we ate until we were stuffed.

In addition to Hanukkah, today was my father’s eightieth birthday.  It is difficult for me to believe he has reached that age.  As must be common to most children, I will always think of him as a young man in his thirties and forties.

It is strange how, as we grow up, time seems to stand still in regard to our parents.

My parents specified that we should bring no gifts to this occasion, but we ignored that request.  Not that my father is easy to buy for.  He has become proficient in the use of the internet in recent years, and he buys the books and movies he wants online.  New clothes just don’t do it for him, as he prefers to wear old duds, even after they’ve sported holes and stains.

But all is not lost.

Thanks, Sam Adams!

 

>NaBloPoMo November 2013

Feast and Family

pumpkin pie

MADERA

Well, another Thanksgiving is in the history books.

We took part in the usual feasting and catching up, and I am pleased to report that no fights broke out.  It was good to be together with family.

Quite a variety of food was served, as was necessary considering that among us we had three vegetarians, one vegan (that would be me), three lactose-intolerant, one gluten-free, one diabetic and one kosher.

As my wife does not enjoy turkey, hot dogs were also served.  By the way, she made what I can honestly say was the best guacamole I have ever tasted.  My sister prepared a wonderful tofu, rice and vegetable casserole.  Although I had brought ample amounts of vegan protein with me, I have yet to eat any of it due to the cornucopia of vegan-friendly dishes on the table.  My mother-in-law sent two vegan fruitcakes and my niece made two pumpkin pies, both vegan, one of them with a gluten-free crust.

In summary, despite the considerable variety of eating habits in my family, we all ended up happily stuffed.

I particularly enjoyed catching up with my sister, as we had been out of contact for six years.  She regaled me with stories about the middle school special ed classes she teaches.

These are just a few things I learned about my family today:

  • My niece and her brother, both young adults who still live with their father, are often mistaken for a dating couple.  “Why can’t they understand that siblings can care for each other?” she bemoaned.
  • My sister’s middle school students refer to defecation as “dropping the kids off at the pool.”
  • My other sister is considering taking a temporary position on an Indian reservation in South Dakota.  Or maybe she’ll just go to Colorado.
  • I have one niece who is currently visiting Israel and a nephew who is traveling around Europe.  I had no idea.
  • It is possible to have wireless internet service on the fly way out in the country where my parents live, but only if you pay a subscription fee for a dongle.  And even then, it is decidedly hit or miss.
  • My nephew, who is less than a year out of college and working in Silicon Valley, is being pursued by Google.  How exciting!
  • I seem to be the only one in the family who knows the Hebrew words to the Hanukkah hymn Maos Tzur (Rock of Ages).

What else?  Well, my sister brought her crazy cat with her.  This feline goes by the name of Butternut, likes to jump up to high places from which she is unable to descend, possesses a squeak rather than a proper meow, and has a penchant for leaving kitty vomit on various parts of the carpet throughout the house.

And I also learned that we all have different senses of humor, and that jokes told at table have the unfortunate potential for making some of those in attendance uncomfortable.  I’ll leave it at that.

When last I left them, my nieces and nephews were conducting high-level discussions regarding who will sleep on the couch, who will sleep on two mattresses piled on top of each other, who will sleep on the floor and whether anyone is going to bother to blow up the air mattress.

I am so happy that we are comfortably ensconced at Motel 6.

NaBloPoMo November 2013

Eve of Thanksgiving

thanksgiving

‘Twas the night before Thanksgiving
and all through my dreams
my lips were a-smacking
o’er puddings and creams.

The taters were roasting,
the stuffing was hot,
cranberries were bubbling
somewhere in a pot.

And, other than snoring,
no sound could be heard
while cooks were all ready
to flip us the bird.

The eve of Thanksgiving has long been one of my favorite days of the year.  It is a time of anticipation, marked by long journeys culminating in reunion.  And, of course, there is the promise of home cooking.  Mashed potatoes and gravy.  Pies.  Love.

For this familial huddle, for this return to our roots, we pack onto planes, crowd into train stations, study bus timetables and get stuck for hours in traffic on the interstate.

The rest of the year we are scattered hither and yon, but today all of us stand in unity with a single destination our goal.

We are going home.

Soon enough it will all be over.  We shall rush out, brandishing credit cards like sharpened weapons, to welcome the holiday season and invigorate the nation’s economy, even as we impoverish our purses.

In the aftermath, the leftovers will consist of turkey sandwiches, warmed-up yams and a third of a pumpkin pie, along with the glow of laughter, memories and a sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves.

Hosts prayed for a genie
to grant them three wishes,
the first of which was
to wash up all the dishes.

When the house was all cleaned
and we sat down to rest
‘twas then we were grateful
to have been so blessed.

From our family gathering in Madera, California, warm wishes to you and yours for a very happy Thanksgiving.

NaBloPoMo November 2013

Giving Thanks

leaf

The struggles make me stronger
And the changes make me wise

—  Gary Allan, “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful”

Tomorrow we head south to California’s Central Valley to spend the long holiday weekend with family.  It’s a triple dipper for us:  Not only Thanksgiving, but also Hanukkah and my father’s 80th birthday celebration.

I never know what to expect at these family events.  Both my sisters will be there.  My relationship with one of them consists of an occasional text.  The other one I haven’t had any contact with in six years.

If you imagine that I may be feeling some trepidation, you’re right.  I truly look forward to spending time with the clan and I just hope that the yelling and the arguments will be kept to a minimum.  I know, I’m dreaming.

Sigh.  Okay, on goes the smiley face.  And as I attempt to assume a positive attitude, this seems to be a good time to enumerate a few of the things for which I am thankful this year.  An exhaustive list would take a lifetime to compile.  But here are some of the things for which I am feeling grateful today:

1.  I am thankful for being blessed with a loving wife who inexplicably puts up with my nonsense, year in and year out.

2.  I am grateful for being surrounded by family every day, and particularly for the precious time I regularly spend with my niece, nephews and grandniece.

3.  I am grateful that I continue to be a beneficiary of the advice and wisdom of both my parents as they enter their eighth decade.

4.  I am grateful that, even in unemployment, we have been able to keep food in our bellies, shoes on our feet, a roof over our heads and gasoline in our tanks.  I am humbled to have lately been schooled in the economics of the extended family.

5.  I am grateful that I was fortunate enough to obtain a good education that has helped me to think critically and to understand our rapidly changing world.

6.  I am grateful to live in the information age.  And yes, I am thankful for my iPhone and my laptop.

7.  I am grateful that I have been spared all manner of suffering:  That I am not dying in a hospital somewhere, lonely in a nursing home, homeless and begging for nickels on a street corner or a soldier missing family while serving in the mountains of Afghanistan.

8.   I am grateful for the joy of music and sunsets and thick dictionaries and haiku and lemon iced tea and homemade soup.

9.   I am thankful for the opportunity to worship God as I see fit.

10. I am grateful for random acts of kindness, both in the giving and the receiving.  It is the encouraging word and the gentle touch that makes life worth living.

11.   I give thanks to all of you, my readers, for your encouragement and for helping to make this blog successful.

12.  I am grateful that I have the freedom to write this list and to share it with the world.

At this holiday season, please remember to share your many blessings with those who are not as fortunate as yourself.  Someone out there needs you.

With wishes for a joyful and safe Thanksgiving to all.

 

NaBloPoMo November 2013

JFK vs. Michael Jackson

JFK Jackson

We were at the post office on Friday when I noticed that the flag was at half-staff.  I wondered why.  Suddenly, it hit me.  Of course!  Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy!

I know I am a certified old fart because I can remember the day it happened.  I was four years old, almost five, living in New York City.  And the whole thing really pissed me off.

Of course, I didn’t understand anything about what was going on.  But what annoyed the heck out of me was that none of my cartoons or kids’ shows were on TV, not even the Mickey Mouse Club.  Every channel just had people talking, talking, talking.  And it bugged me that everyone was going around crying.

Even my wife is too young to remember the day JFK was killed.  She was only an infant then.

I’ve been wondering what landmark events resonate with the younger crew.  This is kind of important because, well, they’re of the age when they’re about to take over the world.

The day Elvis died?  Nope, they weren’t even born yet.  The day John Lennon was murdered?  Ditto.

Elvis met his demise while I was in college.  I couldn’t understand why everyone was making such a big deal about it.  When I was told that John Lennon was killed, I had to ask who he was.  A political figure?  Sports world?  Music?  Bingo.  Oh yeah, I vaguely remembered the notation “Lennon & McCartney” at the top of the sheet music for “Let It Be” that we practiced in junior high chorus.  Hmph.  Whatever.

The day the space shuttle Challenger exploded?  That was in ’86; the twentysomethings still weren’t born.

9/11?  My niece just barely remembers it.  She was five years old when the Twin Towers came down.

Does this leave the Millennials without any personal historical or cultural frame of reference?  Rolling Stone recently pointed out the Gen Y crowd has never heard of Ross Perot, Gorbachev, the TV series “Dinosaurs” (“Not the Mama!”), Cybill Shepherd or Dabney Coleman, and has never taken a roll of film in to be developed (we used to mail ours to Sears with a check and they’d mail back our black-and-white prints) or used a floppy disk, a cassette-based answering machine or a dial-up modem.  Hmm, maybe they lucked out after all.

But fear not!  All is not lost on the young’uns.  I discovered this a few days ago when my 17 year old niece asked me “Where were you when Michael Jackson died?”

Where was I?  The same place I was when Challenger blew up.  The same place I was when the planes hit the towers on 9/11.  At work.

So there you have it.  The King of Pop, who in his life was such a musical influence and cultural icon for Gen X, in his death provided the chief historical frame of reference for Gen Y.

Anything earlier than that exists only on Wikipedia.

 

NaBloPoMo November 2013

I’m Just the Uncle

i can

I never get this thing right.

I’d like to chalk up my failures to the fact that I’m “just” an uncle who doesn’t have the kind of authority and influence that a parent does.  I’d like to credit my shortcomings to the fact that for most of the lives of our nieces and nephews we have lived hundreds of miles away and have been able to show up in person only a few times each year.  When my nascent efforts “fall down go boom” like my little grandniece when she tries to walk across the room, I like to think:  Well, what do you expect, uncle, you don’t know them the way you would have had you been there day in and day out when their personalities were developing.

I make all sorts of excuses.

But the bottom line is that I don’t know the melody to this tune and I’m mouthing the words in the hymnal and doing my best to fake it.

But I guess it’s okay.  After all, I’m just the uncle.

My 17 year old niece and her friend were over here for lunch after church today.  We ordered in Chinese.  My sister-in-law came over with the baby.  I helped my niece with an assignment.  Normal stuff.

My niece’s freshman English professor is requiring her to assemble a portfolio that includes a “career plan.”  She mentioned this a couple of weeks ago and I suggested that it does not have to be a “real” career plan, as it is unreasonable for anyone to expect a college freshman to have the direction of her life mapped out like a FORTRAN flow chart.  (Don’t you love how nicely that reference dates me?)

Then she sat down next and told me the rest of the story.  She is going to state that her career goal is to become a forensic psychologist.  Why?  Because her research found that those in the field typically enjoy a salary of about $59,000 annually.

Um, excuse me?

“Please don’t take this the wrong way,” I began, “but sometimes you go about things backwards.”  My wife shot me a dirty look.  “You should choose a career because it is something you truly enjoy doing, not because of how much it pays,” I continued.

“But I have my daughter to think about,” she responded without missing a beat.  “I have to think about money.”

“Yes, but!”  I began talking with my hands, which is what I tend to do when I am passionate about my subject.  “You’re 17 now, but you won’t be 17 forever.  Before you know it, you’ll be thirty and forty and fifty.  Your daughter will be married and off living somewhere else and what will you be left with then?  Your career has to be for you.”

What I didn’t say was “and I won’t be around to offer you advice then, but perhaps you’ll remember what I said way back when.”

I found it somewhat humorous that my niece thinks that $59,000 is a really excellent salary.  I may be unemployed now, I told her, but when I am working I earn more than that and I’m not a doctor or an arbitrage specialist on Wall Street.

And then you need to think in terms of inflation, I told her.  My middle management jobs pay me more than my mother ever earned, and she has two master’s degrees and a doctorate.  $59,000 today may well translate to $80,000 as you progress in your career.

That’s when my niece dropped the bomb.  “Well, I’m really not sure about forensic psychologist,” she confided, “because I would have to get a doctorate and I really can’t do that.”

Um, say what????

“You can continue your education through a doctoral degree if this is what you really want to do.  Your aunt and I will help you in any way we can.  But please, don’t ever say I can’t.”

girl power

I don’t know where this I can’t stuff comes from, but it frustrates the heck out of me.  Is it a product of feeling beaten down because she is caught between being a teenager and an adult, being yelled at by her mother for not doing her chores while she has her own baby to take care of and term papers to write and physically demanding part-time work to do so that she has a few bucks in her pocket?  Or am I being slapped in the face by the very thing I read so much online about:  That even in this day and age, girls make their way through school being bombarded by the clear message that success in the business world is only for the boys?

This makes me want to tear my hair out.  Arrrrgggghhhh!!!  Where are the Aibileens of this world to tell our girls “you is kind, you is smart, you is important?”

How dare an intelligent young woman like yourself deny your self-worth and unlimited potential?

You don’t often hear me say this, dear niece, but you’re wrong.  You’re dead wrong.

Such demonstrations of lack of self-esteem make me want to explode.  But what else are we to expect when all around us is broadcast the message “You got pregnant in high school, so you can’t.  You have a single mother and you’re poor, so you can’t.  You’re from an ethnic background and you’re a woman, so you can’t.  Don’t hit your head on the glass ceiling on your way out.”

I want to do everything I can to contradict this mentality.  I want you to have confidence in your abilities and to bask in your successes.  I want you to pump your fist and shout at the sky “yes, I can, I can, I can!!”

But I’m just the uncle.  I know what my place is supposed to be, yet I constantly find myself straining against those boundaries.

My dear niece, I know that you haven’t had much in the way of male role models in your life.  You were two years old when I met you, and the next year your father left.  He almost never showed up for his visits and it’s been a long haul of social services and lawyers and courts to extract from him the small amount of child support ordered by the court.  Your mother got remarried, to a man with eight children of his own.  That marriage imploded after a few years; you didn’t really know who to call “Dad.”

Well, my dear, I can’t make up for any of that, and I wouldn’t dream of trying in any event.  I’m just the uncle.

But I’ve tried to set a good example to the best of my ability.  I know you don’t have the financial advantages that I had, but I hope that my academic degrees and the breadth of my knowledge that I am always sharing with you will inspire you to follow me down the path of education and self-enrichment.

Others tell me not to expect too much.

I say phooey!  I expect plenty, my dear niece.  And my number one expectation is, in the immortal words of Shakespeare:  “This, above all, to thine own self be true.”

But what do I know?  I’m just the uncle.

 

NaBloPoMo November 2013

Making Memories

boxes

So I’ve finally been called for a job interview.  This is only the second employer to have called me in.  The first one, back in September, was an utter disaster from start to finish.  (You can read about it here.)

From the get-go, I have the advantage of being a local this time around.  The last interview I attended was a 12 hour drive away.  That’s right:  We drove 24 hours round-trip for nothing.  This time, the prospective employer is 22 miles away.  Still a bit of a commute during rush hour, I’m told, but at least the job would not require me to move from one end of the state to the other.  Also, the other job was in a tiny town up in the mountains, while this one is in a semi-urban area just a mile or two from one of the largest shopping areas around.

Neither the position nor the salary is perfect, but two months of unemployment has a way of making you a bit less selective.

What surprises me is that the interview has been scheduled a month out.  That’s right:  It won’t occur until just before Christmas.  I figure this might be due to a lot of people having time off during the holiday season.  Either that or they’re not in any rush to hire anyone.  But it works out well for me.  As an inveterate worrier, it gives my vivid imagination nearly four weeks to dream up every disastrous scenario ever covered in a B-movie.

Well, an upcoming interview means I need to have an appropriate outfit for the big day.  I’ve had the pleasure of slouching about in pullovers and T-shirts for a while now.  But the occasion calls for pulling out a white dress shirt, jacket and tie.  This means crawling through all the boxes and Rubbermaid containers that have been sitting out in the storage room since our move.

The timing was auspicious, as we also needed to scare up some Christmas decorations.  So my wife and I spent part of this Saturday afternoon digging through the accumulated detritus of our lives.  I am amazed at how much we still have, considering that we sold or gave away about three-quarters of our possessions to avoid having to move them.

Most of the packing boxes had previously been used by my sister-in-law.  One side of a box would be prominently marked TOYS, while the adjacent side would be labelled Kitchen Utensils.  This proved to be a lot less confusing than one might think, as my wife’s fine handwriting is easily discernible from her sister’s thick outlined letters, with some of the characters filled in with stripes, spots and little stars.

The boxes were stacked high against every wall.  As we reached each box, my wife examined one item at a time, and we passed judgment as to whether we needed it enough to bring it into the house or whether it should remain in its cardboard purgatory until our next move.  Do we really need the pair of tongs?  No.  The potato peeler?  No.  The egg slicer?  No.  The ice pick?  No.

Eventually, we discovered a box marked Dress Shirts on one side (Games/Books on the other), which turned out to contain both the shirt and the tie I would need.  We have plenty of time to get them de-wrinkled.

The afternoon was highly successful.  Aside from the dress clothes, we snagged the kitchen towels and chip clips we’ve been missing, along with my winter jacket and my Scrabble set.  I plan to bring the latter to Thanksgiving at my parents’ house just a few days from now, as I’ve been put on notice that my teenaged nephew (flying in from Texas with his parents) wants to play board games.  I hear that he is bringing his Monopoly set on the plane.  I love board games and I’m excited to have a playing partner!

Later in the day, another nephew stopped by to visit, exhausted after his 12-hour shift loading trucks in a warehouse.  The poor guy was griping about his rental house and his unemployed roommate.  He’s learning to cook, and prepared antelope chili this week with the spoils of one of his friends’ hunting expeditions.  Of course he had to call his grandma first to ask whether the meat has to be cooked before adding it to the chili pot.

The problem with his house, he says, is that the washing machine is broken and you can’t run the microwave when the heater is going without blowing the power out.

Here’s a summary of what he had to say about his deadbeat roommate:  “I told him ‘you can’t light the incense anymore.  I’m sick of cleaning up the ashes and I’m sick of not being able to breathe.’  Nobody knows how to clean.  For a long time, he would take everything from the living room, I mean wrappers, cups, and shove it into his bedroom.  I couldn’t find my flat hat, it was in the fish tank in his room covered in dust because he took it out of the living room.  He cleans stuff with a rag and then leaves the rag on the counter with all the crap on it.  Dude, you don’t understand, we don’t have a working washer and dryer.  I ask him every time I go to my mom’s ‘you wanna go do some laundry?’ He always says no.  Then I see him wearing the same clothes again.  I don’t even know if he takes a shower every day.”

Ah, the joys of roommates.  How well I remember from my wild and wooly days.

In the evening, we headed over to my sister-in-law’s house for a wonderful taco dinner.  My niece, who has been in the holiday spirit since before Halloween, had the Christmas music on while she attempted to select spring semester classes, only to learn that many of the ones she wanted either had a waiting list or were closed entirely.  My little grandniece was still wearing her adorable holiday dress in which she had been photographed with Santa earlier in the day.  She has quit crawling altogether in the last couple of weeks, but she still walks tentatively, falling on her bottom often as she makes her rounds from one adult to another.

Willie Nelson sang “Blue Christmas” and Donald Duck duetted with Goofy on “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and as I sang along to our little princess, I was reminded of how important it is to soak in every precious moment today as we make the memories of tomorrow.

 

NaBloPoMo November 2013