Playing Keep-Away: A Tragicomedy in Three Acts

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

What goes around comes around

A couple of decades ago, when my wife and I were first married, she owned a little purple car emblazoned with a bumper sticker announcing that “what goes around comes around.”

I’ve long thought of this phrase as a cautionary tale, designed to take the more hifalutin’ among us down a peg. Don’t think the rules don’t apply to you. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that fate will grant you an exception. There is no beating the odds. Just wait, you’ll get yours, buddy.

It seems like a karmic argument for the Golden Rule.

So when it comes to coronavirus, I have my ear to the ground, listening carefully. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Now, with Passover so recently behind us, as I hope against hope that the horror will pass over our home, I’m thinking of a prayer that we recite on another Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). This part of the liturgy, a somber reflection on the fate that awaits us, begins with “who shall live and who shall die.” The reference is to God’s judgment upon the worthiness of our deeds and the punishment to be meted out upon the sinners among us (umm, that would be all of us).

There is no escape. Just when I start thinking that I may be rewarded for staying holed up in my house for weeks, on the phone my mother reminds me of the number of New York residents who have already perished of coronavirus. As transplanted New Yorkers, we find the very thought sobering. What will become of my 93 year old uncle, back in my old hometown? And what of my cousins, my uncle’s son and grandchildren?

Even here in California, where we haven’t been hit nearly as hard as New York and New Jersey have, we are holding our collective breath. At Kaiser Hospital in Fresno, ten nurses have come down with coronavirus. One of them is fighting for her life on a ventilator, while her fully masked fellow nurses protest on the street and cars passing by beep their horns in support. Is there no hope for the bravest among us, our modern-day martyr Nightingales?

Some say that infection and death haven’t hit peak levels here yet. We’re getting ready for the worst. A few days ago, our governor visited the big, empty arena where the Sacramento Kings used to play; it has now been converted into a hospital ward. He estimated that 56% of Californians will be sickened by coronavirus, then worked with the federal government to send enormous hospital ships to dock on the shores of our state.

So who in my little circle of family and friends will be stricken by this plague? Whom will it open its ugly maw to consume? Will it be someone from work? Will it be one of my nephews or nieces? Or someone in my own house? Will it be me?

Will it be one of my elderly parents? Will my wife and I need to don masks and head to the airport for an unscheduled flight to the epicenter, a graveside service at our family plot in Queens? Or will my parents be bereaved in their old age as they witness me being lowered into the ground near Sacramento?

These are the thoughts that wake me in the night and overwhelm me with a feeling of helplessness.

Seder for One

It’s been about three weeks since my last foray into a supermarket. I was on a mission to obtain five pounds of matzo to FedEx to my parents. I never would have imagined that such a mundane task as going to the store would turn into a surreal experience. From applying an alcohol wipe to the cart handle to surveying the aisles empty of people to doing our social distancing duty by standing six feet apart in the checkout line, the post-apocalyptic vibe made me start to understand the many online “Twilight Zone” references.

Perhaps the one point in my matzo expedition that felt full-on Cormac McCarthy was turning the cart into an aisle and finding another shopper already there, both of us registering a double-take.

I scooted by the poor woman sheepishly, hugging the edge of the aisle, somehow without knocking any cans, jars or boxes off the shelves.

The “kosher food” nook was a tiny corner all the way at the back of the store. I snagged my parents’ matzos as well as two bottles of Kedem grape juice. I had initially planned on sending the juice to my parents along with the matzos, but ended up keeping it for my own little Seder (after discovering that sending glass bottles from point A to point B is not the simplest or cheapest undertaking one may choose to pursue).

My parents received the matzos, and held a little Seder all by themselves on each of the first two nights of Passover. I did the same, from the easy chair in my bedroom that, these days, serves as my teleworking workspace. I set up everything on the little side table next to my chair. And as I read the Haggadah, I fondly remembered the large family Seders of years gone by. Traditionally, the youngest at table asks the “Four Questions,” but when it’s just yourself, you do both the asking and the answering. And all the singing.

In recent years, I have typically attended a Seder at an area synagogue. I no longer join my parents at their home for Seder, due both to the distance and logistics, as well as other family factors that are probably best left unenumerated here. But this year, there were no community Seders at synagogues due to the coronavirus lockdown. While some attended virtual Seders on Zoom, the Orthodox Jewish community (which does not use technology on the Sabbath or holidays) was pretty much left to its own devices. You either celebrated with immediate family or you had a Seder for one. (Disclosure: I am not Orthodox, not even close, but am affiliated with an area Chabad House, which is.)

About a week before Passover, the rabbi phoned to tell me that shmura matzos would be delivered to each congregant’s home. The Yiddish word shmura is derived from the Hebrew shomer, to watch. The creation of these matzos is closely guarded, from the time of wheat growing in the field until they are boxed up for sale, to ensure that no hametz (leaven) touches them. These traditionally round matzos are baked, typically in Brooklyn, for just a few minutes. They come out of the oven super crispy, and typically burned on one side. Some of them are individually sealed in plastic and shipped all over the world. Shmura matzos are traditionally used for the “afikomen,” the last matzo eaten at the Seder table following the festive meal, “after which no dessert ought to be set on the table,” according to the Haggadah.

I live about 30 minutes from the synagogue, so I did not really expect shmura matzos to be transported all the way out here. But they were. And when I confessed to the rabbi that I had no maror, the traditional bitter herb (grated horseradish root), he brought me a little bag of it along with the matzos. In true social distancing spirit, he arranged to leave it on my doorstep.

The Haggadah (“retelling”) is a paper bound booklet, typically sponsored by Maxwell House coffee, that recites the story of our exodus from Egypt. It begins “Slaves were we to the Pharaohs in Egypt” and describes the harshness of our bondage, Moses beseeching the Pharaoh to “let my people go,” and then the ten plagues that the Lord brought upon the Egyptians. Among those plagues were a number of bodily afflictions, bringing to mind our current plague. My favorite of the plagues, however, has always been the second one, frogs. Reading the book of Exodus, or its excerpts in the Haggadah, I am entranced by the vivid imagery of frogs jumping into the mixing bowl and occupying the king’s bedchamber and having to be chased out of his bed. I wonder why the Egyptians didn’t catch and kill those frogs and roast them for dinner. Instead, their amphibian corpses were wasted, as they were shoveled into heaps, “and the land stank.”

Finally, we painted the blood of a lamb on our doorposts so the angel knew to “pass over” our homes while slaying the firstborn of every household. This was too much even for the Pharaoh, who thrust us out of Egypt without notice. It was early in the morning, before the dough for our daily bread, left on the hot rocks to bake, had time to rise. And so we left Egypt with flat crackers to eat, the matzo that we eat for the eight days of Passover each year.

I made a point of leaning in my easy chair, a traditional symbol that, as slaves no more, we now have leisure to relax. I quietly sang Dayenu, the song that lists the many gifts bestowed upon us by God, starting with the splitting of the Red Sea that allowed our escape from Egypt. And after I had tasted the matzo and the bitter herb, I went to the kitchen and microwaved a bowl of vegetarian matzo ball soup for my dinner. Then I returned to my chair to munch on the shmura matzo and drink the final two cups of grape juice, while I finished the Haggadah with its tuneful songs of praise to God.

I am thankful to have found a way to conduct a solo Passover Seder in the time of coronavirus. And the pragmatist in me could not avoid the thought that, for some of us, this year’s Seder might be our last, should this plague fail to pass over our houses.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

It was about 35 years ago when I first visited California. I took a vacation from my job in the office of a giant drug manufacturer’s print shop when my recently married sister offered a spare bedroom. I was treated to some of the sights of San Francisco from the back seat of their tiny car, zipping up and down the hills. This is the famous Hyde Street, my brother-in-law announced. “And this is the corner of Run and Hyde.” I rolled my eyes at the corny joke, but today, I realize that all of us have now arrived at that famous intersection. We wear masks, wash our hands dozens of times each day, and hide indoors as we bob and weave, hoping to dodge the deadly bullet known as COVID-19. We are running scared.

I find it difficult to avoid anger when some of us fight against our current quarantine, wishing only to “return to normal,” no matter the cost. Be strong, state governors, and hold the line lest this deadly virus flare up and consume thousands more of us. I’d rather stay home than die.

I ask you to stop for a minute to think about how easing restrictions on social distancing dishonors the efforts of our health care heroes, the doctors, nurses, lab techs and hospital staff who are placing their lives on the line every minute of every day to save as many of us as they can. Gathering in public further dishonors the efforts of our essential workers, the grocers, long-haul truckers, delivery people, cooks, repair people, utility workers, firefighters, police and National Guard, and others working long shifts, disregarding the risks of becoming desperately ill themselves.

The online newspapers are full of articles about communities that stand on porches and hang out windows at 7:00 each evening to clap, hoot and holler, to cheer on those brave souls putting their lives on the line for the rest of us. I smile broadly. Indeed, it is the small expressions of gratitude that are the finest things in life. And though the naysayers point out that the clappers do nothing to flatten the curve, I beg to differ. For we are doomed without the efforts of our doctors, nurses and essential workers. Clapping as our way of saying “thanks for a job well done” is the least we can do. And who knows? It might be just the bit of encouragement that some of them need to go on. They are human, too.

I have not gone farther than our patio in 21 days. Staying home seems a small price to pay, far less than those toiling on the front lines.

My wife texts our neighbors to make sure they’re okay. She monitors our neighborhood site on Facebook. We do our best to find connection in this time of disconnectedness.

I decide that it’s time to see whether there is any clapping going on in our neighborhood, any cheering for our heroes. I want to participate.

So, a few minutes before seven in the evening, as the sun waxes low and the shadows begin to lengthen, I step out our front door and take in the scene. I look up and down the street. The quiet is jarring. Two teenage boys with skateboards saunter down the sidewalk across the street. Once they are out of sight, no one.

I realize that this suburban street is not a clapping kind of neighborhood. Everyone more or less keeps to themselves. Public displays of appreciation are unknown here. Under my breath, I begin singing.

Cheer for our doctors, cheer for our nurses,
hospital staff and essential workers,

Firefighters, police, delivery drivers

I make up more words to the chant as I go along, whispering in the silence. I think: If I raise my voice to audible levels or begin clapping, someone will probably call the cops. And, COVID-19 notwithstanding, they will come.

A dog on the next street barks once. And then the stillness returns. This does not portend ingratitude, I think, even if it betrays a paucity of community spirit. It is the sound of one hand clapping.

Silence, but for the frogs croaking in the background, oblivious of that long ago Egyptian plague, engaged in their spring mating ritual in the ponds and streams, along the banks of the Feather and Yuba Rivers, and along the shores of Reeds Creek.

No Gifts, Please. (This Means You!)

Do not buy me a gift.  Ever.  Please.

 

I don’t do gifts well.  Perhaps this means that something deep in my psyche is irreparably warped.  But it is what it is.

Just the thought of receiving a gift gives me a headache.  I will either have to take care of it, pay taxes on it, or feel guilty –  first while it sits in a drawer, unused and collecting dust, and then later when I give it to Goodwill or toss it unceremoniously into the trash.

In other words, you’re wasting your money and my time.

Call me ungrateful or whatever the modern term for that sentiment might be.  But don’t waste your energy on one as unappreciative as I am.

Courtesy demands that I thank you profusely for your gift, even as I’m thinking about how to get rid of it.  I learned in childhood that polite society requires that we be good liars.

I am not a materialistic person.  I am not impressed by things.  If there is something that I want enough, I’ll go buy it.  Most of the time, I don’t bother.  Let’s face it, everything is junk these days, usually made in China.

Even your best intentions will blow up in my face.  So stay away with your boxes, bows, ribbons and gift cards.

As a case in point, consider the gifts that my parents bestowed upon me for Hanukkah and for my birthday.

Hanukkah:  My mother sent me a nice Hanukkah card with a $50 gift card to Barnes & Noble tucked inside.  This seems innocent enough, generous even, and certainly thoughtful of my bibliophile tendencies. Well… Let’s examine the effects of the law of unintended consequences, shall we?

First, both the envelope and the inside of the card was addressed to me only, not to my wife (who, I might add, enjoys books as well).  More than likely, Mom did this because my wife is not Jewish and does not  celebrate Hanukkah.  (Psst… I don’t celebrate any December holiday, Mom.) But did my mother send my wife a Christmas card?  Nope.  Has she ever said “merry Christmas” to my wife in our 21 years of marriage?  Nope.  It’s not like Mom has never sent Christmas cards to her Christian friends back east.  As for us, we don’t send any variety of holiday cards to anyone.  Perhaps we should try sending Mom a Hanukkah card and see if she sends anything back?  I don’t know.  Let’s just say that the whole thing justifiably pissed off my wife royally.  I deeply wish she hadn’t sent me any kind of gift.

Oh, wait, that’s not all.  When I finally got around to visiting a Barnes & Noble this month (we don’t have one in our immediate area and had to drive out of town), I found that the books that interest me most (economics and American history) cost twice what I could buy them for on Amazon!  I purchased one book and some desserts from the café, and the card is nearly depleted.  What a waste.

Please, Mom, no gifts.  Signed, your ungrateful brat of a son.

So, let’s talk about my birthday.  Mom bought me a shirt-and-tie pre-packaged combo at a big box store.  Wrong size!  “You can’t win for losing,” said Mom deflatedly when I broke the news to her.  Fine, no big deal.  We tried to exchange the shirt for something in the right size.

First, we learned that the store didn’t have any shirt in stock in my size.  No worries, we’ll just buy a new wallet and tie instead.  No dice!  The store will not accept any returns or exchanges without the original receipt.  And even if we had said receipt, a friendly employee informed us, they wouldn’t take the shirt back because Mom had removed the UPC from the packaging.  Now I have the unenviable task of asking Mom what she would like us to do with the shirt.  Should we give it back to her? Donate it?  Truly a lose-lose situation.

Is this a good time to mention an acquaintance’s restaurant gift card that has been gathering dust for months?  Or the cute game that I think is languishing in a drawer somewhere in this house?

Listen up, everyone.  No.  Gifts.  Please!  This means you, well-intentioned relatives and friends!

Save your money and save our time and energy.  Everyone wins!

The Certainty of Death and Christmas

An interesting article about death cafés, some of which host workshops at which participants write their own obituaries, recently appeared in The Washington Post. Now, I’ve heard of internet cafés and cat cafés, but this was the first I’d heard of a destination where one can get a steaming mug of java along with a side of pondering one’s own mortality.

I find the timing of the Post article rather appropriate.  While there is so much outward Christmas cheer to be had, with carols old and new playing everywhere I go, and my grandnieces and grandnephews declaring every piece of schlock touted on YouTube videos as their heart’s desire, it’s easy to ignore the sadness lurking just below the surface for many of us.  We hear annually of the spike in suicides during the holiday season.  The spirit of the season does not resonate for many of us who have suffered losses or who feel lonely, disenfranchised or marginalized.  The mental health challenges that are always with us seem to be accentuated in the month of December.  
In the hustle and bustle of work, family and holiday preparations, it can be easy to overlook our neighbors who are struggling.  Some of them may not make it to the new year.  For those of us who work in social services, it’s harder not to notice.  It’s in your face every day.  We know to expect an uptick in calls about child and elder abuse, an increase in applications for cash aid, and more stories of epic family squabbles than could fill a telenovela.
It’s a good thing that the media and charitable organizations make us more aware of the needy at this time of year.  We don’t want any child to be without gifts on Christmas morning, nor do we want to see impoverished families settling for cereal or soup for Christmas dinner.  So we try to do our part.  We give extra to the food bank; we haul a box of board games over to the toy drive.  And yet, it’s just so little.  We know it’s a drop in the bucket and we only hope that our tiny contribution makes a difference to someone.
But no one rings bells outside Wal-Mart or holds bake sales to benefit those whose suffering extends far beyond the financial.   There are too many whose pain is invisible, who drag themselves through the holiday season like zombies, who pray for January or maybe just to make it through another day.  I regret that the holidays are such a trigger for so many, in the midst of what is supposed to be a season of joy.  And I don’t know what we can do to be of much help.  Lend a listening ear?  Maybe.  Kindness, understanding?  Reaching out instead of pretending it’s not our problem?  I fear I am lapsing into serious cliché here, but that’s an occupational hazard of looking in the mirror, is it not?
I don’t think I’d do a very good job of writing my own obituary at a death café, no matter how strong the coffee.  But I do know that the one line I do not want in my obituary is “He could have done something, but he chose not to.”
Perhaps Dickens got it right when he had the Ghost of Christmas Future pass judgment on old Ebenezer and his self-imposed blindness to the suffering of others.
Carpe diem.

Why I Hate Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving remains an exciting holiday for me because it is the one and only time of year that I get four consecutive days off work without having to dip into my vacation time.  Other than that, I find Thanksgiving decidedly meh.

Okay, I hate Thanksgiving.  There, I said it.  I find Thanksgiving positively nauseating.  I know, I’ve turned into an old curmudgeon.  Bah, humbug!

Holiday time critics frequently decry Christmas as having long ago been sacrificed on the altar of consumerism.  Thanksgiving, of course, is no different.  We eat too much, watch football and then waste our money on Black Friday.  I see the list of deadly sins taking shape here:  Gluttony, sloth, avarice, envy.

But what about giving thanks?  At my age, I am thankful and grateful for every day that I am still alive.  I thank the Lord for His many blessings every day of the week.  I don’t need a special day just for that.

As a vegetarian, I am disgusted by the mass slaughter of birds.  A coworker recently mentioned the annual presidential pardon of a turkey.  Exactly what crime was that turkey guilty of that it needed a pardon, I asked.  Let’s just say this is not how to win friends and influence people.

As I’ve discussed in this space before, my aversion to Thanksgiving has much to do with family drama in years gone by.  To put it mildly, my memories of the holiday aren’t too sunny.  I used to say that I considered it a good Thanksgiving if no one threw a punch and no one called the cops.  I exaggerate, but not by much.  I considered it a good holiday if no one started yelling expletives and no one lobbed a projectile at anyone else.  By that standard, I don’t recall too many good Thanksgivings.

Today, I have aging parents with health problems.  My usual Hobson’s choice is to either drive four hours each way to spend Thanksgiving with them or to feel guilty about leaving them alone on the holiday.  Thankfully, I’m off the hook this year.  My sister and her son are driving to Mom and Dad’s and will cook Thanksgiving dinner for them.  Thanks, Sis!  I owe you.

As for me, I plan to have an excellent Thanksgiving this year.  I look forward to chowing down at the Sizzler salad bar, just my wife and myself.  On Black Friday, I look forward to catching up on my sleep.

And yes, I’ll have my laptop with me and will probably do some work over the holiday weekend.

So sue me.

 

A Tale of Two Synagogues

I find myself in a mixed bag of denominations of Judaism, with the bag well-shaken.  I grew up attending an Orthodox yeshiva, attending a Conservative synagogue with my mother, and asking a lot of confused questions of my non-believing father.  Dad says he’s a Jew by ethnicity, not religion.  He claims to be agnostic, but Mom says he’s an atheist.

Labels!  They’re enough to drive you crazy.  At Kol Nidre services this year, the rabbi pointed out that labels are good for whiskey bottles, but not for people.

The only synagogue in my immediate area is a Reformed congregation that holds services just once each month.  For the High Holy Days, I generally attend a very Orthodox Chabad congregation, about a half hour drive away.  This year, however, I decided to split the difference by attending Chabad in the evening for Kol Nidre, and then the nearby Reformed synagogue for Yom Kippur services the following morning.
Admittedly, I had an ulterior motive.  Kol Nidre at the Reformed synagogue involved a musical performance by a cellist.  I attended such a service years ago, and it’s more than I can stomach.  (The cello seems to be popular for Yom Kippur in some circles, due to its sad and somber tone, matching the mood of the day.). Conservative and Orthodox traditions consider the playing of musical instruments on Shabbat and holidays to be a desecration of the holiness of the day.  While I like to think I’m more than a little flexible in my religious practice, the cello thing is where I draw the line.  It just feels wrong to me.

Several weeks ago, as Mom was preparing for her surgery, she asked me to locate a Jewish funeral home in the area, “just in case.”  I called up the rabbi at Chabad, whom I knew would have the information at hand.  Toward the end of our chat, he asked if he would see me for the High Holidays.  I hemmed and hawed, finally admitting that the Reformed synagogue is so much closer to my home.  “Well, come for the second day of Rosh Hashannah.  They don’t have the second day at Reformed.”  I remained noncommittal, not wanting to fess up to the fact that Mom would be having surgery on that holiday.  “Reformed isn’t really my cup of tea,” I admitted to the rabbi, mumbling something about wanting to support the synagogue in my local community.

The day before Yom Kippur, I visited both synagogues’ websites and made a modest donation to each.  I left work early, went out to dinner with my wife and her sister well before sundown (when we start our 25-hour fast), and was dropped off at Chabad. In some sectors, the local Chabad congregation is popular at High Holy Day time, as they have a policy of eschewing tickets and charging nothing for seats or attendance.  As many barely observant Jews attend synagogue only once a year, on Yom Kippur, it has become a standard practice among American synagogues to set a fee to purchase a ticket for a seat.  Not Chabad.  (The whole “pay to pray” concept is a complex subject that would require a post of its own.). So, to avoid paying, many essentially nonreligious Jews head for the free Chabad synagogue and, for one day, put up with Hassidism.  What exactly are they “putting up with?”  For one, they put up with men and women sitting out of sight of each other on opposite sides of the sanctuary, the mekhitza (divider) separating husbands and wives.  Also, if you’re male and arrive before the sundown start of the holiday, you’re likely to be collared in the vestibule (as I was) and asked to don tefillin (“phylacteries”), wrapping a leather strap around your arm and pulling another over your head to say a Hebrew prayer.  Then there are the Hassidic melodies, unfamiliar to many from other denominations, and a stern sermon that is likely to rankle the less observant Jews among us.

Last year at the Kol Nidre service, for example, the Chabad rabbi preached on the importance of following the dietary laws of kashruth, urging congregants to make a start by firmly committing to eat only kosher food for breakfast.  This sort of thing (and that was mild compared to the fire-and-brimstone offerings on tap at some Orthodox congregations) turns off many of our nonobservant fellows.

This year, by contrast, I felt that the Chabad rabbi went a lot easier on us.  In fact, after our recent phone conversation, it almost seemed that his sermon was addressing me personally.  I like to think that perhaps I even inspired the content of his sermon.

Thinking about my remark that Reformed services aren’t exactly my cup of tea, the essence of the rabbi’s remarks were that we are all Jews and that we should strive for unity rather than fomenting division by pasting labels and raising walls at every turn.  I wholeheartedly concur.  But I’m still not a fan of the cello service.

The following morning, I attended the Yom Kippur service at the Reformed synagogue nearby.  When I arrived, the service had already begun.  The rabbi was a woman, a refreshing change in my view, and not something you’d ever see in an Orthodox congregation.  In attendance were eight old ladies and two old men.  Not that I’m young or anything, but a congregation composed of octogenarians, and not many of them, can’t survive for long.

Reformed congregations tend to hold a more abbreviated service, with most of the prayers read in English rather than Hebrew. But the prayer book they used had more than a bit of a hippy-dippy cast.  To be fair, many traditional prayers appeared, with interwoven alternate, modern verses.  For example, there was a prayer for Mother Earth that referenced climate change and global warming.  (Which isn’t to say that this is not a vital topic of public discourse; it’s just that, when found mixed into my religion, it comes off a bit like a fly in my soup.). And the traditional Al-Het prayer, in which we confess our sins by name, made reference to sins of disrespect committed “because I was drinking.”  This falls about six standard deviations from what one can expect to see in a prayer book used by Chabad.  Ultimately, it’s a matter of preferences, and a matter of what you’re used to.

In her sermon, the Reformed rabbi referred to her dysfunctional upbringing by an alcoholic father.  The previous evening, by contrast, the rabbi at Chabad told the story of a Jewish woman going to the post office to buy stamps.

“What denomination?” asked the postal clerk.

Mom’s Surgery – Part II

When I met my parents for lunch in Sacramento on Monday, Mom was irritated and in a foul mood. They had made the three and a half hour drive for a doctor appointment at Kaiser, a supposedly necessary connection to set a surgery date at UC Davis.

Except that Kaiser refused to do any such thing. UC Davis? They simply claimed not to know what Mom was talking about. Despite what my parents may have been told at Kaiser in Fresno, Kaiser in Sacramento insisted that they don’t schedule surgery at UC Davis. Any surgery would have to be done at Kaiser’s own hospital in Sacramento. And anyway, there were no available surgery dates for months.

Understandably, Mom wondered which Kaiser facility was lying to her. I voted for Sacramento on that score. Why would Kaiser in Fresno tell her that the surgery could be done at the respected teaching hospital at UC Davis if that were not true?

Answer: To shut my sister up. Sis had driven down to support Mom at her gynecology appointment at Kaiser in Fresno a few weeks ago. Mom related that Sis and the doctor got along famously, Sis rambling on about her work as a sonographer. But Mom’s medical record betrayed a different story. Mom only found out because the doctor in Sacramento inexplicably read aloud the part of the record characterizing Sis as a meddler unhappy with her mother’s care. I can only conclude that the nonexistent Davis option was the Fresno doctor’s way of mollifying Sis. When Mom reported this to my sister, the latter got on the phone to Kaiser in Fresno to complain, only to be told that she must have misunderstood.

So Davis is out. I suggested to Mom that if she was going to have the surgery at Kaiser, she might as well have it done at their Fresno hospital, where she’d be close to home. No, she told me, apparently the surgery that she needs to remove her teratomas is sufficiently specialized that Kaiser does not do it in Fresno.

The surgeon in Sacramento, whom Mom characterized as a young kid “who I wouldn’t hire as a waitress,” never shut up for a minute and never let Mom get a word in edgewise. To add further ambience to our lunch, Mom was fighting with Dad (what else is new ::eye roll::), who she insisted had consistently sided with the young floozie against her.

The next day, Mom was informed that a cancellation had resulted in an available surgery appointment on October 1 at Kaiser’s Sacramento hospital. Since it falls on a Tuesday, Mom agreed. Any day but Friday. “People die when they have surgery on Friday,” she explained.

The only problem is that Mom’s scheduled surgery falls on Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New Year (one of our High Holy Days). Mom was clearly conflicted about this, but I assured her that she had made the right decision. She’s been feeling pretty lousy lately and, well, that’s when a surgery date was available. Waiting months for the surgery just to avoid the holiday made no sense to me.

The young surgeon opined that she could do the surgery laparoscopically, getting Mom sprung from the hospital after just an overnight stay. I am not sure why I am a bit skeptical. Regardless, my parents will be arriving next weekend, sleeping on the blow-up mattress in our living room. Pre-op is Monday, then surgery on Tuesday. I have arranged for some time off work and will be chauffeuring them the 45 minutes each way to Sacramento for the duration, however long that may turn out to be.

There are entirely too many things that can go wrong, both at my house and at the hospital. I remind myself to calm down and put it all in perspective.

After all, it could be me going under the knife.

Have a Merry Little Dysfunctional Christmas

Christmas Eve.

We just spent the last two days with family and we will again on Christmas Day.  We have a break in the middle for the purpose of driving up California’s Central Valley to maybe throw a load of laundry in and spend a night sleeping in our own bed before heading north to do it again with another part of the family.

Today is my parents’ 65th wedding anniversary.  We had Shabbat dinner at their house on Friday evening, followed by an informal party on Saturday.  In between, we drove down to the rural area of southern Fresno County to watch my wife’s three year old grandniece open gifts.

Both my sisters, along with two of my nephews, were present for my parents’ big day.  Mom made up the hors d’oeuvres platter, my parents bought the cake at a local supermarket, and one of my sisters did most of the cooking.  She and her husband are pesco-vegetarians, but they accommodated my vegan ways by preparing tofu ratatouille, broccoli, rice and potatoes along with their salmon.  The carnivores in the crowd had meatballs and franks.

One of my sisters lives over in the Bay Area and commutes to her job in the Central Valley.  Working 12-hour shifts in a hospital, she has a crazy schedule and was lucky to get a day off to attend our festivities.  My other sister is a teacher in the suburbs of Boston, while her husband is a tech industry exec in Dallas.  All three of their kids are in Boston; two work in tech, while one is still in college.  After years in Dallas, Sis left her husband behind and decamped for Boston in June, mostly because their anorexic daughter was in and out of the hospital and Sis was worried sick.  Before long, my niece told Sis to buzz off, which, understandably, my sister took hard.  Still, she enjoys the Jewish community and liberal academic environment that Boston has to offer, a far cry from her red-state experiences in Texas.  Back in Dallas, hubby takes care of the house and the cats and is overseas for his job one week each month.  He visits Sis in Boston frequently.  The thought is that, eventually, they’ll buy a house in Boston.  None of us is getting any younger, and hubby is bound to retire sooner or later.  Meanwhile, Sis rents a room in a house owned by a couple she knows.  She complains that the room is drafty and is usually too cold in the New England winter.  But she loves her job and being near friends and her kids.

I am reminded of my parents, who were also separated for a number of years due to their careers.  My mother worked in places like Rhode Island and Utica NY while Dad stayed in the house in the suburbs of New York City, making a long drive to visit Mom once or twice each week.

What a way to live, huh?  I know that, these days, you have to go wherever the job is, but I always think in terms of wife and husband moving together.  Then again, I think of marriage as involving shared finances as well as a shared residence.  Yet my parents have kept their finances separate for decades.  I used to think this was unusual, but now I’m starting to hear that it’s not so uncommon.  Blech!

The funny thing about my family, that was really brought home to me during our visit this week, is that we have next no nothing in common.  From a common origin, my sisters and I have shot off in totally different directions in terms of geography, family and career.  I’m glad that I don’t see my sisters very often, as I can’t imagine us getting along for more than a few hours every year or so.  We simply have different worldviews, and I sometimes wonder whether we’re really from different planets.  Certainly I couldn’t ever see calling one of them to ask for advice on a problem.  For the most part, I prefer to have as little to do with them as possible.

The disjointedness of our lives became embarrassingly apparent as my sister from Boston attempted to encourage conversation as we all sat together in my parents’ family room on Saturday.  There were long pregnant pauses, during which three or four of us would be occupied by apparently fascinating things on our phones, the rest of us absorbed in our own thoughts or staring off into space.  Hospital Sis was sprawled out on the couch, nearly asleep.  Boston Sis would offer conversation starters such as “Who has an interesting story about their job?” or “Who has done something interesting lately?” or “Has anyone seen any good movies or TV shows recently?”  Most of these overtures fell flat after a minute or two, leaving us in physical proximity, but as emotionally distant from one another as we usually are geographically.

When it was time for dinner, we had to rustle up my wife and Hospital Sis, both of whom were fast asleep.  Mom decided to wake up Sis by tickling her, which devolved into loud accusations of rudeness from both sides, along with threats never to visit again.  Typical for us, I’m afraid.  As Trump is so fond of saying, “Sad!”  I don’t know why we bother to put on this dog and pony show, regardless of the occasion.  Mom is a firm believer that “blood is thicker than water,” that families must stick together regardless of the profound differences between their members.  Uh, enjoy?

Finally, when the cake and ice cream was served after dinner (no vegan desserts available, although I declined the offer of an orange), Hospital Sis resorted to web searching on her phone for a site full of courtroom jokes.  Some of them were quite funny, primarily at the expense of inept attorneys, and we all laughed at them.  Then Dad began to tell the same racist and dirty jokes that he’s told since I was a kid.

Soon, my wife and I drifted off to the family room to visit with my nephew, who told us stories about his life in the Bay Area.  Everyone else remained in the living room, from whence I could hear my mother telling family stories about her parents’ emigration from Europe to America, the same stories she’s told dozens of times, year after year.

I’m not coldhearted enough to say no to my parents when they want all of their children present on the occasion of their 65th anniversary.  Sixty-five years of fussing and fighting, yelling and cursing at each other.  I know I’m not unique in this respect.  As Tolstoy famously wrote, “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

As if to prove the truth of Tolstoy’s observation, my wife’s niece called us on FaceTime while we were at my parents’ house.  She is 20 years old, has a 5 year old daughter, and can’t figure out what she wants in life.  I attempted to give her advice along the lines of being true to herself, as she thinks she led a guy on, who she now wants to let down easy, or maybe not.  Respect yourself and insist that he respect you was my recommendation.  We had the call on speaker, and I think we put on quite a show for my own family.

As if to add a punch line to a decidedly unfunny joke, we stopped for coffee on the way home today and proceeded to drive over a nearly invisible concrete divider at the entrance to a parking lot, blowing out one of our tires.  Right in front of a tire shop, I might add — a tire shop that was closed for Christmas Eve.

This makes two months in a row.  Last time, it was on a desolate stretch of interstate in the middle of the Arizona desert on the way to the Grand Canyon.  At least this time we had friends nearby who came to our rescue while the Triple A tow truck hauled off our vehicle to the only open tire shop in the area, about 15 minutes down the road.  We had one hour until the shop closed, just enough time for them to take off the flat and install a new tire, to the tune of $165.

Uh, merry Christmas?