House Books, Car Books

I am reading (on my phone, in a hotel in a distant city, in the middle of the night because I can’t sleep even though I have to teach a class in the morning) New York Times article about how e-books have yet to supplant paper books, when I am struck by the illustrative photo.  Two stacks of books on a shelf, 16 tomes in all, at Common Grounds bookstore in DeKalb, Illinois.  Nothing too exciting about that, until I realize that I have actually read three of these books.  This surprises me because I routinely assume that most of the world would have no interest whatever in the books that tickle my fancy.

Indeed, I tend to think of my literary preferences as a bit off center.  For one thing, after years of reading novels, I have more or less left fiction behind, abandoned with the things of youth.  There is just too much knowledge out there awaiting my consumption (a word that conjures up images of both Mark Strand and Archibald Macleish) and application to, well, the meaning of life.  I’ll add this to the list of things that my father warned me about but that I blithely ignored until I was well into my fifth decade and finally began to see things his way.

As for my reading habits, I divide them into “house books” and “car books.”  We do a lot of long distance driving, and my wife spends most of the time behind the wheel.  So whenever I acquire a book that I believe may interest her, I save it to read aloud while she is driving.  Books that I believe she would find boring I read by myself at home.  There aren’t too many house books, for the practical reason that we live in a tiny house and I simply can’t concentrate with the TV always being on.  This may change as the weather warms up, as the other renters on the property have brought chairs and tables into the garage.  I may make that my private refuge when they’re not using it.

The photo in the Times reminded me of my wild and wooly novel-reading days.  The pictured books I have read are Jonathan Franzen’s creepily realistic The Corrections, Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days and George Carlin’s When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?  Fond memories of years gone by are associated with each of these, but I have no intention of going back there.  History, autobiography, memoirs and social science have my attention these days.

My current “house book” is Kory Stamper’s Word by Word:  The Secret Life of Dictionaries.  On deck is Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland:  Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.  After that, I plan to attack a doorstop-length biography of Harry S Truman that has been sitting in the bedroom jeering at me since I purchased it at the Truman Museum in Independence, Missouri a couple of years ago.

In the car, we are reading Lars Eighner’s homelessness memoir Travels with Lizbeth:  Three Years on the Road and on the Streets.  Before that, my wife and I read another memoir, I Will Always Write Back:  How One Letter Changed Two Lives (Ganda, Alifirenka and Welch).

I am encouraged by the inclusion of several memoirs in the Times bookstore photo, most notably George W. Bush’s Decision Points and Bill Clinton’s My Life.  Now, I’ve never thought highly of Bush the warmonger or Clinton the sex fiend, but curiosity got the better of me and, in my insomniac state, I took the opportunity to read the first few pages of the Bush memoir on  To Bush’s credit, he admits that he focuses on what he sees as the most critical points of his presidency rather than covering every detail of his life.  Still, he starts with a description of his childhood and high school years that he wraps up in about fifteen pages.  This makes me a bit sheepish about having written an entire book-length memoir of my childhood.

Then again, I’ve never been president.  Perhaps my childhood is the most interesting part of my otherwise bland life.

My favorite moment of Bush’s brief description of his childhood is the time he visited his wealthy grandparents in Greenwich, Connecticut, had to wear a coat and tie to dinner, and was disappointed to find a bowl of red soup with a glop of white in the middle at his place setting.  Bush found it awful, which he attributes to the fact that he was brought up on peanut butter and jelly, not borscht.

Among the most important elements of any book is the ability of the reader to relate to the protagonist.  I am certain that I’d be disappointed by Decision Points and I won’t waste my time reading it.  I simply lack the requisite empathy for oil and Wall Street wealth, and he who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.  After all, I was raised on borscht, if only at Passover.  Also, lox, herring in cream sauce, chopped liver, gefilte fish and matzo balls.

Peanut butter and jelly I didn’t discover until high school, where a triple-decker version was a cafeteria standard.




High There

Winter, 1972.  My last year of junior high. I’m sitting in English class, listening to Mr. Kincaid drone on, paying more attention to the distraction of the show that Mother Nature is putting on for our benefit, just outside our second story window.  It’s the first snowstorm of the year, and the thick, heavy flakes are being flung diagonally from the heavens directly onto the lawn and evergreens flanking the school building.  All of the students sitting at desks in straight rows are thinking the same thing:  Will it stick?  Will the roads become too slick for the school buses?  Will we have early dismissal?

Suddenly, the classroom door bangs open and a missing classmate bursts into the room with a grand entrance.  “It’s snowing!” he yells.  His unrestrained exuberance brings grins to many of our faces.  The guy is high as a kite, and Mr. Kincaid promptly dispatches the pot-reeking fellow to the assistant principal’s office.

Throughout junior high, high school and college, I found myself constantly dodging the haze of marijuana smoke that seemed to surround me everywhere I went.  From the time I was 14, the pot culture trickled down from the older kids.  Woodstock had occurred just three years earlier, the Summer of Love just two years before that.  The fact that marijuana was highly illegal in New York State and the fact that we were minors didn’t mean a thing.  My mother, herself an assistant principal in another school district, taught me that marijuana smoke smelled like burning rope.  It didn’t take me long to verify that firsthand.  It wasn’t unusual for me to push open the door to the boys’ room and to turn right around and walk out, coughing.  I guess I didn’t have to pee that bad.  Ugh.

As a very conservative teenager with a religious upbringing, the drug culture of the late sixties and early seventies freaked me out.  I could not understand why people felt the need to attain altered states of consciousness.  The vast majority of my classmates came from upper middle class families; few were poor.  Most of us led a fine suburban life.  What exactly were we trying to escape?

We’d hear a lot of talk about “youthful experimentation.”  Then we’d be shown films featuring marijuana as a “gateway drug,” with a clear explanation that the gateway led to a wasted life, delirium tremens, death from overdose and suicide.  Most of us laughed it off as typical “square” adult reactionist propaganda.  If only our elders would try it, their eyes would be opened to what the kids already knew.  If only they weren’t so uptight.  The illegality of pot wasn’t a factor at all.  That the purchase and possession of marijuana violated the law was just another notch in the deepening generation gap.

Teenagers such as myself who stood with our parents against drugs were ridiculed and marginalized.  “You do what’s right and never mind what anyone else thinks,” my mother would tell me.  I agreed with her, but it still felt like an uphill battle, at least until the middle of my junior year of high school when we moved farther upstate.  Although I am Jewish, I fell in with a crowd of conservative students who shared my love of music and drama.  It didn’t take too long for me to realize that most of them were born-again Christians.  But they were so nice to me, and none of them used drugs or even smoked cigarettes.  Happiness!

College was another story entirely.  I attended the state university nearest my home.  I was familiar with the campus, as my parents had done their graduate work there while I was growing up.  What I didn’t fully appreciate at first is that it was a so-called party school.  Drugs of every kind were for sale up and down my dormitory corridor.  I was offered drugs at every turn, and quickly learned how to duck and dodge the smoke and pills that seemed to be everywhere.  I learned that those tall glass monstrosities were known as “bongs.”  I had read enough to know to politely decline the offer of a brownie.  The college administration buried their heads in the sand, ignoring what was going on under their very noses.  In my second year of college, I transferred to a larger state university farther upstate, but the drug culture was there, too.  I simply couldn’t run away from it.  I’d return to my dorm suite after class and find a thick haze of pot smoke awaiting me.  “When else will we get to do this if not while we’re young?” my suitemate would tell me.  I was totally disgusted and moved into a single room occupancy student hotel at my first opportunity.

Among the privileges of adulthood that I began to enjoy upon graduating from college was freedom from being surrounded by illegal drugs.  There was no pot smoke in the rest rooms at work, and I did not have to constantly justify my drug-free lifestyle.

And now, all these years later, it feels as if I am awaking from a pleasant dream, awaking into a nightmarish reality.  Throughout the month of December, our local newspaper, the Sacramento Bee, featured a countdown (days, hours, minutes) on the front page of the online edition — a countdown to marijuana becoming legal for recreational use in California on January 1.  I started seeing electronic signs along the freeway, warning the public that “DUI doesn’t just mean booze” and “Check the label before you pop that pill.”  The hidden meaning seemed to be that pot may be legal, but driving under its influence is not.  Then the TV ads started.  “I really like it.  Yeah, I love it!  But I never drive under the influence.”

Marijuana dispensaries have begun opening all over the place.  The strict (and expensive) licensing requirements are more than offset by the lines of Californians ready to lay down their money for a natural cannabis high.  And I have to wonder whether, Cheech and Chong notwithstanding, California is truly going “up in smoke.”  Not that everyone smokes.  I’ve learned that there are “edibles,” marijuana in the form of candy, cookies and such.  You don’t need to light up to get silly and zone out.

I suggested to my wife that we buy stock in Nabisco and Frito-Lay, as they will undoubtedly be making more of a killing than they already do, this time off wasted Californians with the munchies.

It is difficult for me to express the depth of my disappointment in the legalization of marijuana in my home state.  What am I supposed to do, try to ignore what is all around me as I did in my college days?  As a manager, what will I do when I encounter a red-eyed employee whose clothes smell vaguely of pot smoke?  As long as the work is getting done, should I turn a blind eye?  Honestly, I don’t know which end is up anymore.

But what I find most disappointing of all is my state’s willingness to flout federal law, under which the purchase and possession of marijuana remains clearly unlawful.  Last I heard, the Golden State continued to be a member of the Union.  So now the feds appear to be engaging in a backlash against California’s legalization of pot.  Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently made it easier for federal prosecutors to enforce federal marijuana laws in states in which recreational use has been legalized.  The Bee has labeled Sessions as a hypocrite, in consideration of his past commitment to states’ rights.

The Founding Fathers must be turning over in their graves.  The great political battles over federalism in the eighteenth century continue alive and well today.  California has long been a bastion of liberalism, but I believe that there are limits.  I am beginning to understand the secessionist rumblings that hit the news in California from time to time.  It is said that, were California a nation, our economy would be the sixth largest worldwide.  Perhaps, should the feds begin raiding California pot dispensaries, our state will finally be pushed over the edge and will declare its independence from the United States.  The Second Civil War may well occur, not in the south, but in the west.  I haven’t yet heard a call from Governor Brown to raise a state militia, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s next.

Meanwhile, I’m told that my opposition to marijuana use is nothing short of ignorant.  I am reminded of its medical uses and its pain-killing power to alleviate suffering.  I am told that pot is not addictive in the way that Oxycontin and fentanyl are, and that legalization of marijuana could even have the effect of stemming the expansion of the deadly opioid epidemic.  I am told that if others want to drink or get high, that is their business, just as my decision to avoid those behaviors is my business.

To me, however, medical marijuana is one thing, while recreational use is quite another.  (Nevertheless, I have nothing but admiration for my wife’s dad, who suffered from terminal cancer in the days before medical marijuana was legal, and who passed up the opportunity to use pot in favor of painkillers that could be legally prescribed.)  It’s as if we haven’t learned anything from the families and lives that have been destroyed by alcohol.  Let’s make substance abuse easier to engage in, as it’s not our place to judge how others choose to live their lives.  What will be the cost of increased medical bills, increased deaths on the highways, and jobs and families lost to pot?

I’ve had a list of grievances against California that has grown throughout the 20 years I have spent in my adopted state.  With the legalization of marijuana, however, I believe that California has finally lost its mind.  Do we really want to live in a state in which every other person is high?  My prayer is that my personal fortunes and circumstances change such that I am able to move to a saner state in which recreational marijuana is, in accordance with federal law, not tolerated.  And I know that many of my fellow Californians will bid me good riddance, shouting through the pot smoke, “don’t let the door hit you where the good Lord split you.”



Things I’ll Miss, Things I Won’t

My wife and I live in a tiny house.  Not as small as some of those tree house/doll house thingies you see on TV, but very small nonetheless.  There is a bathroom just inside the front door, and there’s a decent-sized bedroom.  Between the front door and the bedroom is a small space that serves as kitchen, living room and office.  When I step inside the front door, it’s 18 steps to our bed at the farthest end of our humble abode.

We have enough room for a table and the falling-apart love seat that came with the place.  The love seat is my wife’s office (she works from home and spends about ten hours a day there) and where she eats her meals; she rests her laptop on a folding tray table.  The table is my office (where I do my writing, that is) and where I eat my meals.  The TV is wedged kitty corner on top of a bookcase and next to our printer.


My office workspace/kitchen table

My wife enjoys working remotely, and I can see the appeal (even though my own attempt in that vein was less than a positive experience).  She can work any hour of the day or night (even in her PJs, if she so desires), as long as she gets everything done.  It definitely saves money on gas.  Also, we can travel at will, wherever there is a wifi connection.

As for me, I’m glad that I work downtown rather than being stuck in our little space all day.  Yes, even with the price of gas.  Even though I have to get up at 4:30 in the morning in order to snag my handicapped parking space.  Even though more than once I’ve nearly met my maker while merging onto the freeway in the predawn darkness.  Even though it takes me 45 minutes to drive the 12 miles home in rush hour traffic.

We have now lived here in our cozy mouse hole for 2½ years.  I’m not sure how much longer we’ll be here.

The best thing about our little place is that the monthly cost is far less than the inflated rents charged for the privilege of being wedged like sardines in a can known as a Sacramento apartment.  And we enjoy the luxury of having everything included — electricity, heat and A/C, water, trash collection, cable.  We experience extraordinarily hot summers in this part of California, and it certainly is a relief to be able to blast the A/C without worrying about a $500 electric bill (what we had to pay in June, July and August when we lived out in the Mojave Desert).  This time of year, however, it gets cold.  One wall of our place is attached to the owner’s garage/workshop, and I don’t think there’s much in the way of insulation.  This situation is further aggravated by the wonky thermostat that we can’t get off the “temporary” setting, hence converting the air temperature from toasty to freezing several times daily.

This place was originally built as a mother-in-law suite, out in back of the main house where our landlord lived with his wife and four kids until recently.  When the landlord’s in-laws decided not to live here, he began renting it out.

My wife likes the place because we’re behind a big iron gate that opens and closes electronically (so far, I’ve only hit it once while attempting to back out of the driveway).  She says the gate makes her feel safe.  Well, there’s a lot of crime in this area (can you tell me of an area where there isn’t?).

Recently, our landlord sold his painting and cabinet installation business.  He had quite a few employees, and he was exhausted after years of supervising them here at his workshop and at installation sites.  His kids were growing up fast and he felt that he didn’t spend nearly enough time with them.  He is relishing in the opportunity to start afresh in Arizona, where the kids’ grandparents are close at hand.  I hear he’s looking for some other type of business to run.  How exciting to start a new life!

Thankfully, our landlord is not selling his house, at least not for now.  He will be renting it to two women whom I believe are distantly related to him.  This means that we get to keep our itty bitty love nest.  We’ll stay here as long as we can, but our guess is that it won’t be too long before he sells the entire place.

Having one’s landlord reside just a few yards away comes with its pluses and minuses.  In some respects, we’re rather sad to see the family go.  But honestly, some things I will miss and other things I won’t.

What I’ll miss:  Having the landlord just a stone’s throw away when the toilet starts leaking, we get attacked by ants, the dishwasher or microwave go wonky, or one of the recessed lights burns out (replacement of a bulb requiring the climbing of a ladder).

What I won’t miss:  The used car lot vibe.  Some days I’ll come home and find two enormous work vans, two of my landlord’s personal vehicles, and my wife’s little beep-beep of a Ford all wedged into the driveway.  Some days we have to park on the street until a vehicle or two can be moved.

What I’ll miss:  Having the kids around.  They’re still a bit shy around me, but they absolutely adore my wife.  And they get excited when my five year old grandniece comes to visit.

What I won’t miss:  The piles of toys, bikes, tricycles and four-wheelers seemingly strewn everywhere.  We’ve learned to dodge the daily detritus of a flock of kids, although we periodically end up stepping on something (an action figure, a toy truck, a grape) or running over something with a tire.


The bike pile

What I’ll miss:  The little things.  Showing the landlord’s wife (who home schools the kids) a shortcut for teaching the multiplication facts, receiving a surprise gift of strawberries, handing out ice pops to the kids in the summer, listening to Jonah excitedly telling me a story in incomprehensible baby talk.

What I won’t miss:  Being unable to do laundry for three days in a row because the washer and dryer in the garage are blocked by a work crew busy with a big painting project.  Contending with sickening paint fumes for days on end when cabinetry for multiple accounts is being painted at the same time, just on the other side of our wall.  Stepping around and over cords and generators used to run the electric equipment used in the landlord’s business.


One of the landlord’s recent painting projects in the garage just on the other side of our bedroom wall.

What I’ll miss:  The animals.  Zoe, the German shepherd.  Tiger, the striped kitty.  And the flock of chickens.  My heart was warmed when, at first, we were told that the family was taking all their animals with them to Arizona.  Gradually, however, I discovered the truth.  Zoe was given away to a nephew.  (Hopefully she’ll be able to run around and get more personal attention in her new home than she does here, locked up in her pen all day.)  The chickens and their coop were given to the neighbor lady.  And, so far, I hear that they’re still planning on taking the cat with them.  I sure hope so.  My wife, who doesn’t even like cats, feeds Tiger all the time, and he follows us around every time he sees us.  Wherever you end up, Tiger, I hope the rest of your nine lives are purrrfectly content.


Poor Zoe! 

Hayden and Tiger

 My grandniece with Tiger


The hen flock, just outside our front door.

What I won’t miss:  The animals.  Zoe is a really good dog who ended up with a bum rap incarcerated in doggy jail most days.  We routinely bring her our leftovers from restaurants.  My wife makes her chicken broth ice pops when it’s 110 degrees outside (and goodness knows how much hotter in that thick German shepherd coat).  Zoe, I won’t miss hearing your signature first bark, followed by a whine when you’re shocked by that electric collar.  Cruelty!  I won’t miss seeing you throwing yourself at the aluminum fencing, begging for a little attention from someone.  Tiger, I won’t miss trying to figure out where you’re hiding so that I don’t accidentally run over you with my car on the way out to work.  And as much as I’m charmed by the clucking and pecking of the hen flock, I won’t miss the steady parade of chicken poop left on our porch.  Watch where you step!

Good luck in Phoenix, guys.  May blessings be upon you.


Siamese, If You Please

I am not a pet person. (I’ve mentioned this fact on a number of previous occasions in this space — here and here, for example).  Today, however, I almost wish I were.  You see, our county animal shelter is full.

I’m not exaggerating here.  The Bradshaw Road facility out near Highway 50 is usually pretty close to capacity (they chalk it up to a combination of overpopulation due to a failure to spay/neuter and the general public attitude that cats and dogs are disposable).  But this is different.  They are full.  No vacancy.  No room at the inn.  Can’t take any more no matter how desperate the situation.  Nowhere to put any kitty or puppy that shows up at the door.

How can I adequately explain how desperate the situation is?  At the beginning of December, the shelter’s occupancy level was labeled “extremely full.”  This week, however, the Sacramento Bee reported that a local animal advocacy group posted the following on Facebook:  “The shelter is beyond capacity.  There is NO MORE ROOM!”

Because I am a hopelessly sappy sucker, I’d actually consider adopting one of these critters if I didn’t live in a place where no pets are allowed (except for the landlord’s pets — more about that later this weekend).  I’m lucky to have something to save me (and the poor dog or cat who got stuck with me) from my own folly.

Arthur   Ophia

Arthur and Ophia, two of the pit bulls currently available for adoption at the Sacramento County animal shelter.

I suspect that one of the reasons for the shelter being overflowing is that most of the dogs currently up for adoption are pit bulls.  Like German shepherds and labs, these dogs are big guys.  This means that they demand a lot of the shelter’s resources.  Also, they’re harder than a lot of breeds to adopt.  They eat a lot, they poop a lot, and they need a lot of space to run around in.  You probably shouldn’t have a pit bull if you live in a one-bedroom apartment.  Also, well, pits have a bad rep.  Some people are afraid to have them around babies and little kids. And every so often, you read a story in the news about some unfortunate who was mauled to death by his or her own pit bull.  There are plenty of people out there who love this breed, but pits are clearly not for everyone.

Then there are the cats.  This evening, I’m seeing 62 of them on the shelter’s website.  Six of those were recently adopted.  This is as opposed to 17 of the shelter’s 74 dogs having been recently adopted.  More than a few of the available felines are labeled as “barn cats,” which I suppose is an appeal to those who have mice to get rid of.  Then again, I suppose “barn cat” is a not-so-subtle hint that this is not a cute, cuddly kitty who is going to curl up in your lap and purr while you’re watching Netflix.

Oh, I should mention that there are also three rabbits and four chickens up for adoption at the shelter.  No goldfish, turtles, hamsters or snakes, apparently.

It’s no surprise that the adoptable chickens are not the egg-laying hens that everyone wants.  No siree, they’re loud, obnoxious, pugilistic roosters.  We’ve got plenty in our neighborhood, some of which have a predilection for crowing in the middle of the night.  My guess is that if these guys ever get adopted, they’ll go straight in the pot with a bunch of carrots and onions.  I see them for sale all the time in cages by the Mexican butcher shop at the corner of Main and Rio Linda Boulevard.  I can only hope that they don’t end up forced into illegal cockfighting, a fate arguably worse than being served up next to the mashed potatoes.  As for the rabbits, they need to hold on for another three months or so until they’re in demand as Easter gifts.  Otherwise, they may well meet the same fate as the roosters.

I have to wonder how many of the shelter dogs and cats will end up murdered — I mean “euthanized.”  As if I had to mention it.  You know what euthanized is a euphemism for.  Back in school, I learned that “euthanize” is from the Greek for “good death.”  But you know that half of what you learn in school is propaganda and lies.  I was well into adulthood before I learned that the correct translation of the Greek is “couldn’t get adopted.”

Some have registered surprise that an animal lover such as myself doesn’t have pets.  I mean, since I’m vegan and all.  And especially since I don’t have kids.  (As if pets can substitute for children.  People are so dumb.)

Honestly, I can understand why more people don’t adopt dogs and cats.  They’re a lot of work, they cost a lot of money, and then they die on you.  I had to laugh this week when I read an article about a dog that helped save a fat man’s life.  This guy weighed 340 pounds, was taking 15 different medications, and all efforts at weight loss had failed him.  He hurt all over and tried not to move any more than he had to.  (I weigh more than that.  You’re not telling me anything I don’t know.)  Apparently, he was spurred into action by an embarrassing moment when a plane he was on had to be delayed while they found a seatbelt extender large enough to fit him.  Haha!  I’ve got that one all figured out.  I don’t fly.  Oh, this guy had to travel for his job.  So do I.  Luckily for me, my employer insists on using the discount carrier Southwest, which has a rule that fat people have to buy two seats.  Score!  Now it’s cheaper for me to drive than to fly.  I’ll be laughing at my destination while the others are waiting hours to get through the TSA line.

So then this guy makes an appointment with a naturopathic doctor, who tells him to switch to a plant-based diet.  Again, haha!  Plant-based diets are certainly gaining popularity; even Kaiser encourages this now and has messages about it on their interminable “hold” recordings.  But after three years of being vegan, I can tell you firsthand that eating plants won’t by itself make you thin.  The article cited Bill Clinton’s diet, which I’ve read is not totally vegan despite his representations to the contrary.

Then the naturopathic doctor ordered this guy to go to the animal shelter and get a dog.  “Why a dog?” he said.  “Can I adopt a cat instead?”  The doctor responded:  “Have you ever walked a cat?”  Again, haha!  No, I have never walked a cat, nor a dog either.  As I see it, you have a nice fenced yard, you let the dog out, it does its business, it comes back in.  Or, like our landlord, you leave the dog in a large pen outside the house all day.  But going out in the dark of night (this time of year, I go to work and come home in the pitch blackness), freezing cold, wind and snow with a plastic bag and pooper scooper?  No how, no way.  Oh, and by the way, if I want to go walking for exercise, I don’t need a dog (or cat) to do that.

All of which brings me to my mother.  Her beloved Siamese cat, Taffy, left for kitty heaven a little over a year ago at the age of 18.  Taffy was originally my sister’s, but wasn’t doing well cooped up in Sis’s condo.  She drove Taffy and her meds down from the Bay Area to my parents’ house, in hope that the country air and space to roam about might improve her health.  It did.  Taffy took to her new life as an outdoor/indoor cat and throve with my parents for more than a decade and a half.  Now she’s buried out at the back edge of their property.


Mom’s Siamese, Taffy, back in 2015.

My sister from Boston, who came out to visit this past week on the occasion of my parents’ 65th wedding anniversary, decided that the time has come for Mom to get another cat.  I suppose I can understand this, as she’s nearly always had a cat (or two).  There were entirely too many for me to remember, but I do recall a gray one named Pussy Willow, an all-white one named Snowflake, an orange hellion named Mewcus (eww), another gray one named Schwantzy and a huge white one with black ears and paws with the unlikely name of Baby Baldrick (who ran away to become a Canadian chat when we attempted to retrieve him from a kennel at a campground in Québec).  Mom doesn’t believe in spay and neuter, so we had cats that would have as many as three litters per year.  I remember my sisters and I standing with a boxful of kittens on Saturdays, yelling “Free Kitten!” until we were hoarse in front of Pathmark on Route 59.

Nevertheless, I think Mom, who is well into her 80s, should decide when she’s ready for another cat, not my sister.  But Sis pushed the issue, taking Mom to Petco to look at the adoptable cats, then to the local animal shelter, where over 200 felines were available for adoption.  Mom was impressed by the way that the cats had free reign over the place, prowling in and out of cat doors to visit each other in various rooms and out of doors, as well.  But she couldn’t seem to find exactly the one she wanted.  She said she doesn’t wanted a little kitten, nor does she want an older, lazy fat cat.  So what exactly did Mom want?

A Siamese.  Mom’s favorite cat was a Siamese named Pouncy who was run over crossing the road in front of our house when I was two years old.  She lives on in my father’s reels of Super 8 home movies.  After my parents retired and moved to California, Mom’s first cat was a dusky blue-eyed Siamese beauty named Bonnebeau (supposedly because she was beautiful and good).  Of course she wasn’t spayed, so Bonnie, an indoor cat, went into heat and meowed piteously to be let out to have at it with the neighborhood toms.  Eventually, she did manage to get out and celebrated her newfound freedom by taking off for parts unknown.

Unfortunately, Mom and Sis did not see any Siamese at either Petco or the animal shelter.  So my sister got online and showed my Mom pictures of cats, including Siamese, available for adoption from the Cat House on the Kings, over in Fresno County.

Then my sister got on a plane and headed home, after which Mom admitted that she doesn’t really want to deal with another cat.


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?



The Tenth Man

I remember being four and five years old, walking down the hill with my grandfather on a Saturday morning from our Bronx apartment building to the little shtibl (one-room storefront synagogue) where he prayed regularly with a group of retired men.  Many of them would fuss over me, and I knew there’d be sweet treats (honey cake and grape juice) waiting for me if I could only hold out and not fidget too much until the end of the seemingly interminable service.  It was such a relief when I would hear the sweet strains of Adon Olam and Ein Keloheinu that meant that we were nearly done.

Around the middle of the service, one of the men would solemnly take the Torah out of its ark, raise it up while everyone sang, and then set it down on the podium.  The cloth covering would be removed, the string would be untied, and the Torah would be unrolled to the proper place for reading that week’s portion of the Pentateuch.

What everyone knew is that there’d be no Torah reading unless a minyan, a quorum of ten men, was present.  Being under bar mitzvah age, I didn’t count.  Neither did the few old ladies who would show up and sit behind the mekhitzah (curtain) in the back.  It seemed we always had enough in attendance to do a proper Torah reading.

But that was in New York City, half a century ago.  Today, in northern California, there is no guarantee of a minyan.  In the synagogue that my elderly parents attended for about 20 years (they stopped going about a year ago), whether there would be a minyan or not on Shabbat (or, sad to say, even on a holiday) was a decidedly hit-or-miss affair.  My father, who has a marked antipathy to religion of any type, would chauffeur my mother to synagogue with the intent of heading to the public library for a few hours.  Inevitably, the rabbi’s son would come running out of the sanctuary, tzitzit (prayer fringes) flying, to implore my father to stay and make the tenth man needed for the minyan.

Orthodox Jews tend to take the rule of ten very seriously.  I believe the origin of the tradition is that ten men are considered representative of the community as a whole.  The Jewish jokes about this are legendary.

Of course, it’s not just any ten men who must be present to read from the Torah.  They must be ten Jewish men.  (My personal preference tends toward the modern egalitarian practices of many Conservative congregations, where both women and men count toward the minyan.)  And just what constitutes a Jewish man?  Well, traditionally the answer to this question involves far more than faith and practice.  A man is considered Jewish if his mother was Jewish.  I suppose fathers don’t count because the child develops and comes forth from the womb of the mother.  But what if your mother had a Jewish dad and a non-Jewish mom?  Then you’re not Jewish, at least according to Orthodox tradition.  So determining whether a minyan is or is not present may involve inquiries into the provenance of the tenth man’s grandparents.

I suppose the emphasis on pedigree arises from our heritage as the “children of Israel.”  Either you’re descended from the tribe or you’re not.  This has caused a lot of trouble for those of us who were born into other faiths, or into no faith, and later convert to Judaism.  It seems to me that those who wholeheartedly embrace our traditions should be counted as full members of our religious community.  In some places they do (many Reformed congregations, for instance), while in others, they don’t.  The disputes about converts that go on in some of the Conservative movement synagogues that I’ve attended remind me of the way many Christian churches tear themselves apart over whether to accept gays as full members of the congregation.

I started thinking about this topic earlier in the week when President Trump announced that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and would (eventually) move our embassy there.  My first reaction was “it’s about time.”  But I had to laugh, as Jerusalem has been the capital off Israel for millennia.  Trump deciding that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel is a bit like me declaring that Cheerios is a cereal.  It really doesn’t matter what we think.  Some things are just facts.

I’m sorry to see on the news that violence has broken out in Israel over the United States’ recognition of what has always been true.  Perhaps it is just another excuse to demonstrate ancient animosities among religious groups that are neighbors in the Middle East.  Yet I don’t see such garrulousness as an excuse to perpetuate a lie.  Tel-Aviv has never been the capital of Israel.  I heard a comment on TV that Tel-Aviv is “a lot more fun” than Jerusalem.  Perhaps Tel-Aviv is the industrial and technological hub of Israel, and perhaps its nightlife is better than Jerusalem’s.  But that doesn’t make Tel-Aviv any more the capital of Israel than it makes Portland the capital of Oregon or of Maine.

Hanukkah, the Jewish eight-day festival of lights, begins this week.  Just as recognizing the fact that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel has touched off partisan bickering in the Holy Land, so has it been in our own capital of Washington.  President Trump was in attendance at the annual White House Hanukkah party this week, to which Democrats and others opposing his policies were not invited.  Latkes (traditional fried potato pancakes) were served, of course, along with kosher lamb chops (apparently an annual White House tradition since 1996).  The party was held the day after Trump’s proclamation regarding Jerusalem.  There was an after-party at the Trump International Hotel (more latkes, more Republicans, salmon, caviar), at which the president received even more congratulations.

I had a good smirk when the New York Times article about Trump’s Hanukkah celebrations mentioned that the president’s grandchildren are Jewish.  Oh, really?  Not by Orthodox standards, certainly.  True, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, is Jewish.  But Trump himself is Christian, and his daughter was raised as a Presbyterian.  Although Ivanka has converted to Orthodox Judaism and is far more observant than I, that won’t be enough for many congregations to recognize her kids as genuine members of the clan.

When it comes time to read the Torah, either son of Jared and Ivanka shouldn’t be too surprised if name dropping “my grandpa, the president” isn’t enough to make him the tenth man.  And that sort of clannish, non-inclusiveness seems rather sad to me.

We need to find more reasons to bring us together, not more reasons to drive artificial wedges between us.  I pray at this Hanukkah season that the people of Israel, and those who profess to be Jewish around the world, will find it in their hearts to renounce the evils of divisiveness and embrace the spirit of acceptance and love.


Your Cat is Eating Your Turkey


In early November, my sister sent me a text message inviting me to Thanksgiving dinner.  She recently purchased a house in the Bay Area and wanted to show it off.  I consulted my wife and then texted her back to say yes, we would come.  Her new home is less than two hours away and we didn’t have any firm plans for the holiday, so I figured why not.

Two days later, Sis texted me again to say that Thanksgiving was off.  My parents had visited her and apparently indicated that they would never return.  It seems that they were frightened off by the winding roads that lead to the mountaintop street where my sister now resides.

An hour later, my sister texted me again.  “Thanksgiving is back on.”  My parents had agreed to drive as far as a supermarket parking lot on the flats, where my nephew would pick them up and haul them up the mountain.

My parents stayed home anyway.  Dad recently contracted a severe case of conjunctivitis and, despite the use of eye drops prescribed by a doctor, he has been unable to open his eyes very far, making driving out of the question.  We offered to drive all the way there, pick them up, take them to Sis’s house in the Bay Area, and drive them home again.  They declined on the grounds that Dad is probably still contagious and no one will want to be near him.

As if it weren’t bad enough that my parents would be spending Thanksgiving alone, the fact that Dad is unable to drive has created much greater problems.  My mother, also age 83, hasn’t driven in seven years and expressed to me that she never plans to drive again.  She says she doesn’t feel comfortable driving, and that it makes her feel a bit dizzy sometimes, and that she’s just too old.  Nevertheless, she plans to renew her driver’s license when it expires in 2020.  She just doesn’t plan to use it.

My parents live in a rural area at the edge of the rangeland where the cattle graze.  I call it “the wild prair-ie.”  The nearest supermarket is about 20 miles away, although there is a small grocery store about four miles from their house.  I’ve been on the phone with my parents on an almost daily basis and they’re starting to complain about running out of their favorite foods.  It’s not that they don’t have food and are going hungry, it’s just that they’ve used up the items they need to prepare the meals they like best.  Not only that, but they need to prepare more meals than usual, as they aren’t going out to dinner several times per week as is their usual practice.

My parents celebrated Franksgiving, eating hot dogs and beans for dinner.  Mom was annoyed that they had no buns on which to serve the franks, although not as annoyed as Dad is that he is out of bananas to cut up in his morning Honey Bunches of Oats.  Yesterday, Mom reported that they are completely out of bread.  “Not even the frozen kind?” I asked.  My parents are famous for freezing many loaves of bread and defrosting a little bit at a time.  Nope, even the frozen stuff is gone, she told me.

I asked whether we should drive down there (seven hours round trip) to get them some groceries.  No, said Mom, they’re not out of food yet.  I offered that, if she provides us with her grocery list, we can probably have what she needs delivered to her door.  Then we checked online and learned that we probably can’t.  My parents’ location is just too rural.  I couldn’t find any online services that deliver to their zip code.  Most likely, the best we would be able to do is to have canned goods shipped to them in the mail.

Sis says she may drive down there on her day off and take my mother grocery shopping.  If not, my wife and sister-in-law will take care of it.  That is, unless Dad is driving again.  Now that Mom is putting the drops in his eyes instead of having him do it himself (and missing), things are looking a lot better.

We thought seriously about skipping out on my sister at the last minute and driving to the Central Valley to spend Thanksgiving with my parents instead.  However, Mom begged us not to.  She told me that Sis was already distraught that they weren’t coming and she’d be truly upset if we were to bag out on her, too.

I had no idea how right Mom was.

My sister urged me to invite all of my wife’s family to join her for Thanksgiving.  Most of them had other plans already, however, and the driving that would have been required is excessive.  Now, Sis has two adult children.  Her son resides in the same town and agreed to come early to help prepare the meal.  But her daughter failed to respond to her invitation.  Sis even called her ex-husband in an effort to browbeat him into coming and bringing his daughter along.  Of course, neither of them showed up.  My niece has some type of ongoing argument with her mother and doesn’t wish to speak with her at the moment.  As for my sister’s ex, well, he’s remarried and has obligations to spend the holiday with his own family.

Traffic on Interstate 80 was terrible on Thanksgiving morning, and it took us nearly an hour more than expected to reach my sister’s house.  At one point, we nearly turned around and went home due to traffic being at a dead stop for close to 15 minutes.  I’m glad we didn’t.  Other than my nephew, my wife and I were the only guests.

Mom called while we were stuck in traffic to find out why we weren’t there yet.  She said that Sis, having initially expected lots of guests, had purchased a 30-pound kosher turkey.  I didn’t know that birds come that large, so I wasn’t at all surprised to find that she had been exaggerating more than a little.

My wife had made a fruit salad the night before and I put together a batch of fresh guacamole.  We transported both in a cooler, along with my almond milk and a few other miscellaneous items.  Well, it turned out that my sister had prepared a feast.  Knowing my food restrictions, she served me sautéed tofu with mushrooms and onions, although it was my wife who actually cut everything up in preparation for cooking.  Sis also fixed me roasted vegetables and a dressing prepared with gluten-free bread and vegetable broth.  Both were delicious, and we had ample leftovers to take home.

After dinner, we retired to my sister’s living room, with its amazing picture window view of the bay, Oakland and San Francisco.  I suppose living on a hilltop does have some advantages.  Sis was stretched out on the sofa, my nephew busied himself watching videos about Japan on his laptop, and my wife and I relaxed in a pair of rocker-recliners while we chatted.  Sis was facing us, while my wife and I had a clear view of the kitchen, where none of the leftovers had yet been put away.

Soon, Sis made up some soy mochas while my nephew sliced the pie.  Actually, there were two pies, both Dutch apple, my sister’s favorite.  One was “regular” and the other was both vegan and gluten-free for my benefit.  The latter cost a hefty $15.  Curiosity got the better of my sister and she decided to try my pie first.  She took one bite, gagged, and spit it out.  She began yelling that it tasted like lemon-flavored sawdust on cardboard.  I assured her that there was no reason to be shocked.  That’s more or less what a commercial gluten-free pie crust tastes like.  Those of us who cannot tolerate gluten can either put up with it or not eat pie at all.  I’m told that there are homemade gluten-free pies that actually taste decent, but I don’t cook and am happy to get whatever is available.  This was the first pie I had eaten in about a year or so.

Sis gave me the rest of her slice of pie and we took the remainder of the pie home in its box, where I promptly demolished it.  It really wasn’t as bad as she described.

I should mention that my sister has two cats.  Butternut (alias Butt, Nut or just Squash) is a rambunctious orange tabby that sheds fur like there’s no tomorrow.  Sis rescued her from a shelter in Albuquerque.  Then there is Macchiato, whose coat features a crazy quilt of every cat color known to man on one side, while being nearly entirely white on the other side.  Macchi was rescued from a shelter in Boise, Idaho.  My sister moves around a lot.

Macchiato is fairly shy and made herself scarce during most of our visit.  Butternut, however, is extremely outgoing and insists on being a part of whatever happens to be going on at the moment.  When not perched on the coffee table or getting underfoot, she would jump up to her cat bed, high atop her scratching post.  There, she could be queen and master of her domain.

The availability of a particularly large variety and quantity of food was not lost on Butternut.  I decided that I had better describe what I was seeing.  The squash meister had jumped up on the kitchen counter and was helping herself.  “Your cat is eating your turkey,” I nonchalantly informed my sister.

“WHAT!!!” was her reply, causing my nephew to spring out of his seat and complain that his mother had nearly caused him a heart attack.  Sis sprinted into the kitchen, removed Butternut from the counter and chastised her severely.  Still, she did not put away the food.  Instead, she returned to join us.

We lounged in my sister’s living room, she nearly asleep and me admiring the twinkling lights of the city while listening to my nephew regale me with tales of working in downtown San Francisco. It didn’t take too long before I noticed that Butternut was at the carcass again.

“Your cat is eating your turkey,” I repeated.

“Don’t say it like that!” yelled my sister.  I guess I was supposed to jump out of my seat and make a hullaballoo instead of being calm about it.  Once again, Sis removed her cat, but not before Butternut had lapped up most of the gravy out of the measuring cup in which my sister had served it.  She made growling noises at ol’ Butt that I suppose were designed to teach her a lesson that her behavior was unacceptable.

And then my sister finally began to put away the food.  The turkey, she indicated, would end up in freezer bags and would take her many weeks to use up for her lunches.  Whereupon she began to portion out the remaining turkey meat, totally unfazed that it had been mauled by the filthy mouth of a cat.