The Potty Chair in Heaven

Back when I was still working as a manager, several of my employees who had Spanish surnames and identified with Hispanic culture explained to me that they don’t speak Spanish because their parents never taught them the language.  Wanting their children to succeed in school and in the Anglo culture, their parents abandoned their native tongue and spoke only English at home.  These children grew into adults and regretted having lost a part of their heritage.

One of my employees made an effort to learn Spanish once she began working, but admitted that she’ll never speak the language anywhere near as fluently as she would have had she learned it as a child.  I had other employees who married spouses whose first language was Spanish and learned to speak the mother tongue that way.  Still others were never able to pick up more than a few rudimentary Spanish phrases.  At least one conveyed to me that she feels cheated.

I’m starting to feel the same way about Yiddish.

Granted, I’m one generation removed from where my Hispanic employees were.  My mother’s parents, who emigrated to New York City from eastern Europe in the 1920s, spoke fluent Yiddish, along with German, Polish and some Russian.  They studied English in night school preliminary to taking and passing their citizenship exams.  Once my mom and her sister were born, they spoke only English at home for the same reason that my employees’ Mexican immigrant parents did so.  They wanted their children to become good, successful Americans.

Late at night, after the children went to bed, things were different, however.  My mother would hear her parents having lengthy conversations, even arguments, in Yiddish and Polish.  She remembers my grandmother waking up in the middle of the night and saying something in Polish that sounded like “jestche shitago” (“the baby is crying”) and wondering why she was talking about Chicago.

My father is even one more generation removed from the Old Country.  His parents were born in the Bronx, and he never heard his parents speak any language other than English.

Although my mother’s parents mostly stuck to English when the kids were around, their conversation was peppered with the Yiddish words for those things that they either did not know how to translate to English or that had no exact English equivalent.  I picked up a tiny fraction of these Yiddish words and phrases from my mother as I was growing up.  While I can’t speak Yiddish, I’m grateful that at a least a few of those phrases stuck with me over the years.

Here in northern California, Yiddish is probably more exotic than Afrikaans or Esperanto.  In my native New York City, however, a handful of Yiddish phrases (or English-Yiddish hybrid words sometimes called “yinglish”) have made their way into common parlance.  Some of these eventually became known throughout the country via TV shows such as Seinfeld.  For example, most people in New York (and many more elsewhere) know that tokhes is a Yiddish word for your rear end.

When I was a kid, I would sometimes ask my mother to teach me some Yiddish.  She would comply by explaining the meaning of a few phrases, most of which I would promptly forget.  So it makes no sense to me that I should still remember kick der finster (“look out the window”).  Then there was the time that the entire family broke out in paroxysms of laughter at my attempt to say the word “moon” in Yiddish.  From my religious school education, I was familiar with levana, the Hebrew word for moon, which is often used in Yiddish as well.  Most commonly, however, the phrase telereh in himmel (literally “the plate in the heavens”) is used for “moon” in Yiddish.  Unfortunately, whenever I tried to pronounce this, it came out as tepeleh in himmel, or “the potty chair in heaven.”  I still crack up at the thought of shitting in outer space.

Today, my speech is mostly free of Yiddishisms.  What I’ve noticed, however, is that when I’m under a lot of stress, and particularly when I am visiting with my parents, my flat California accent devolves into Brooklynese and the Yiddish phrases come to my tongue unbidden.  Then there are other times when, from somewhere deep in my subconscious, things that I don’t expect come out of my mouth.  My favorite example of this occurred years ago when I was attending law school and renting a room with kitchen privileges from a woman who had probably never seen a Jew before.  Being a poor student, I was attempting to learn to cook by trial and error, and one day I asked my poor landlord if she had a ribayzin.  She stared at me as if I had lost my mind, and it took me a couple of seconds to realize that I spoken the Yiddish word that I had always used to refer to a hand grater.

My wife, a native of northern California and a Christian, didn’t know a word of Yiddish when we were first married.  Over time, she picked up quite a bit from me, causing me to understand that I still use more than a few Yiddish words that somehow sneak into my vocabulary when I’m not paying attention.  Not only does she know what I mean when I mention a ribayzin, but she herself often refers to schmutz (dirt).

When I get on the phone with my mother, however, all bets are off.  I catch myself referring to situations as fafaln (hopeless) or bashert (fated to be) and garments as being oesgevoxen (outgrown) or oesgekrokhen (the colorful Yiddish word for “threadbare” that literally means “crawled out,” as if the missing fibers had grown little legs and crawled away).  I may refer to a bad joke as schmaltz (the Yiddish idiom for “corny” that literally means “chicken fat”) or my grandniece as a shayna maydele (pretty girl).  If I’m having a pity party due to my current unsuccessful job search, I may intone oy vay is mir (“oh woe is me”).  If I’m upset with someone, I may suggest that he or she is in serious need of a zetz in kopf (smack upside the head).  I may refer to my unemployment check as a lokh foon a baygel (“nothing” — literally “the hole from a bagel”) or bupkes (“a hill of beans” — literally “tiny pieces of shit”).  And if I’m attempting to refer to someone as a senior citizen (not my parents, mind you), I’ll probably call him or her an alter kocker (“old fart”).

Make no mistake, Yiddish contains many earthy, raw, base, even obscene phrases, just as every language does.  Unfortunately, more than a few of these have become fairly well-known.  And let me tell you, some of these are fighting words.  For example, I hear that my mother and my sister recently had a screaming argument over the phone regarding the names of their respective cats.  (Sadly, I’m not kidding.)  My sister claims that my mother’s cat’s name is actually the Yiddish idiom for a certain male body part while my mother claims that my sister’s cat’s name is actually an anti-Semitic ethnic slur for “Jews.”

I try to stay as far away as possible from this kind of stuff.  If I need to get off the phone because it’s late, I might suggest that my mother gay schlufen (“go to sleep”).  But I won’t cast aspersions on anyone’s punim (face), nor will I refer to anyone as a meeskite (ugly) or a mamzer (bastard). 

And I most certainly will not tell anyone to gay in dred (“go to hell”).  I still remember the time, over thirty years ago, when my parents had a three-day fight after my father used that one on my mother.

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How Are You? I Am Fine!

stamp

I can’t remember the last time I received a personal letter in the mail.

We don’t have mail delivered to our door in our rural location, but when I turn the key in our post office box, I know exactly what I will find:  Advertisements, junk mail and trash.  Insurance forms, maybe a bill or two.  It’s as if the whole world spews up vomit into my mailbox.

If it were up to me, I’d probably check the post office box about once a month.  And then I’d forget for months at a time, the box would become stuffed with garbage, and the post office would start returning mail to sender because the box was full.  Ah, that sounds lovely!  You send me trash?  Back at ya, losers!

My wife, however, is addicted to snail mail.  She absolutely has to drive to the post office and check the box every day.  She is disappointed if a day goes by without any mail for us.  She hates federal holidays because… no mail!

I fail to see the point.  Anyone who wants to contact me sends me an email or a text.  Except for my parents, the only people who still use a telephone to call me because, well, they don’t do technology.

When was the last time you received a handwritten letter from anyone?  You know, sent the old-fashioned way, where you have to affix a postage stamp and drop it in a mailbox?  Sorry, birthday cards don’t count.

Back in December, I did receive a Christmas letter from a friend with whom I had lost touch.  I felt badly because he was informing me that he and his wife had divorced.

But before that?  I haven’t a clue.  It must have been years since I’ve received a letter.

Part of the reason for this is technology, of course.  It takes days for a letter to make its way through the mails.  Why wait when you can send an email or a text and have it arrive in a matter of seconds?  And who wants to go through the hassle of going to a mailbox or a post office?  Plus, email is free!  My young nephew, who was laid off from his job recently, informed us that he hadn’t sent in the documentation needed to receive unemployment benefits because he didn’t have the money to buy a stamp.  See what I mean?

Another part of this equation, I believe, is that we no longer have the patience and writing skills necessary to compose personal letters.  Just think of it!  You have to find a sheet of paper and an envelope and a pen.  And then you have to think of something to say.

Perhaps you do have something to say.  But it’s something like “Are you free for lunch on Wednesday?” or “Hey, come check out my new blog!”  Back in Victorian England, notes such as these might show up via post.  In our modern world, however, no one would bother to write a letter to express such brief thoughts.

Or for any other reason, for that matter.

If you want to discuss the pros and cons of dumping your skanky boyfriend or tell your friend about the cute things your baby is doing, you’ll probably go for a phone call.  Either that or you’ll post a pithy remark on Facebook.  My wife tells me that entire family feuds go on over F-Book.

I keep hearing that people can’t write a coherent sentence anymore, much less string together enough sentences and paragraphs to compose a letter.  Perhaps it’s a case of “use it or lose it.” Letter-writing has become technologically obsolete, so we lose the skills that writing letters requires.

I grew up in the Stone Age, before the advent of personal computers and cell phones; letter-writing, while past its heyday, was still common.  I learned to write letters by watching my mother write letters.  I remember being five years old and trying to copy the loops and swoops of her neat cursive (called “script” back then).  Before my mother was born, letters regularly went back and forth between immigrants arriving in America and their parents and siblings back home in Europe.  But she grew up during World War II, when letters were strongly associated with sons fighting far away in foreign lands and writing home to Mom and Dad.  Some parents wrote to their boys each week, faithfully, until they came home or a gold star was solemnly placed in the window.

When my mother was barely a teenager, living at home in New York City, her older sister took a train to the west coast to work in San Francisco.  We have family stories about my mom and grandma sitting down at the kitchen table to write her letters every week.

In my day, many kids learned to write letters while they were away at summer camp.  The counselors would always expect the campers to stretch out on their bunks and write home once a week.  I myself learned to write letters because I couldn’t wait to see my grandparents who lived a 2½ hour drive away in Connecticut.  Writing a letter was the next best thing to being there.  Once I got the hang of it, however, I wanted to write to everyone, from people I saw every day to people whom I barely knew.  I would routinely begin them with “How are you?  I am fine!”  Then I’d relate every little thing I could think of, from my favorite cartoons to a recent stomach ache.

My maternal grandfather remarried when I was about six years old (not long after Grandma passed on), and his new wife had two grown sons, one of whom loved to travel.  He used to tell me that his goal was to visit every nation on earth.  He probably succeeded, too.  Knowing how I loved fancy stamps from exotic countries, he’d send me post cards from places I’d barely heard of.  His tag line was always the same:  “There goes Global Sobel!”  It was always exciting when one of his post cards showed up in our mailbox.

When I was about eight years old or so, I was disappointed when my maiden aunt (great-aunt, really), whose fancy accountant’s adding machine and elegant high-rise apartment on West 57th Street I adored, moved to south Florida.  We immediately struck up a long-distance correspondence via U.S. Mail.  I loved receiving her letters on fancy perfumed stationery.  And I wrote back to her all the gory details of my life, including, much to my mother’s consternation, the blow-by-blow of my parents’ constant screaming arguments.  Of course, if there was any game or book I wanted and couldn’t wheedle out of my parents, I simply wrote to Aunt Iris and asked for it.  She would always oblige by sending something my way (A package in the mail!  Just for me!), although rarely the exact item I had requested.  I’d ask for a Scrabble set and Jeopardy! would show up on the doorstep.  I’d ask for a Bible and would unwrap a prayer book.  The poor woman tried!

Then my beloved grandparents moved to Florida as well, starting yet another wave of letters back and forth from New York to the Sunshine State.  Often, when I finished my letter, I’d hand it off to my sisters to write a few lines at the bottom.  Sometimes they’d add our cat’s name at the very end, lest any member of the family be left out.

Among my favorite letter stories involves the time we moved about an hour away and changed schools.  My sister and I both found ourselves attending John Jay High School, she a freshman and me a junior.  When I finished my latest later to my grandparents and passed it to my sister, she added a few lines of her own, including the statement “John Jay is great!”  When the letter arrived in Florida, my grandmother quickly got on the phone with my Dad.  “Who the heck is John Jay?” she demanded, thinking my thirteen year old sister had picked up some kind of boyfriend of whom she was particularly proud.

Even in my college days, during the summers I’d write letters to friends who I missed.  After graduation, I briefly corresponded with two of them who had gone overseas, one to work in Germany and the other to toil in the Peace Corps in central Africa.  As time goes on, however, our friendships of younger days tend to recede into the past, and the letters slowly petered out.

And when I wrote back to my friend who sent me the Christmas letter, I realized that this was the first personal letter I had written in many, many years.

My college student niece, whose little one we babysit while she is busy at classes, recently asked my wife and me for a favor.  She recalled how, when she was just a bit of a thing, she cherished the letters that my wife would write to her.  When our grandniece starts to read, she asked, could we please send her letters through the mail so that she can experience the same excitement of opening and reading them?

You can count on it, my dear.

 

Ruth

SACRAMENTO

“Are you looking for something?”

The man in the black pants with the tzitzit strings hanging out could tell that I was getting frantic.

“Is there a yarmulke around here somewhere?” I asked, referring to the religious head covering that every male must don upon entering the synagogue.

My voice came out in a disembodied squeak.  This was not me speaking; this was someone else entirely. At the age of 55, I had become a child back in yeshiva again, about to be punished for my forgetfulness.

For me, the most difficult part of attending an Orthodox Jewish elementary school was wrapping my brain around the cultural gap of Grand Canyon-like proportions between what we were taught during the day and what I went home to at night.  After attending a Chabad Lubavitch synagogue service yesterday, I am forced to conclude that nothing has changed in the past half-century.

Back then, my mother kept the kosher laws, although my father, an atheist, did not.  Neither observed the Sabbath or attended synagogue.  Today, along with my Christian wife and Pastor Mom, this Jew boy lives in the parsonage of a Pentecostal church.  Then as now, I am torn between two worlds.  But here I stand, about to participate in the Shabbat service of an ultra-Orthodox congregation that hearkens back to the days of my childhood.

The man on the patio opened the door and entered the sanctuary, returning momentarily bearing a black skullcap.  I thanked him, but I couldn’t look him in the eye.

I know I have a yarmulke here somewhere.  Before leaving the house, I searched our bedroom to no avail.  In the car, I turned the glove box upside down, pissing off my wife royally in the process.  No yarmulke.  But I knew there was no way on earth that I was going to walk into that synagogue bareheaded.

With my head now covered, I meekly entered the rear of the sanctuary, trying my best not to be noticed.  No such luck.  I looked at the floor, but still couldn’t help but catch multiple pairs of eyes following me, attempting to be nonchalant.  I was a few minutes late, and the service was already in progress.

We had left the house early enough, but the convoluted directions provided by Google Maps left us lost somewhere in a subdivision.  We finally called upon Siri on my wife’s iPhone to set us back on the right path.

My next mission was to find a tallis, the black-and-white prayer shawl that Orthodox men wear during Saturday services.  Most regulars bring their own, but there are always a few around for the benefit of those who are without.  I found two or three talletim folded neatly on a table in the back.  They were the heavy, woolen kind, like the ones my grandpa wore during the winter in New York.  Only this is springtime in California.  As I shook out a tallis, I could already feel the itchiness creeping up my neck.

I wrapped the tallis around me as best I could, even though it was way too long for me.  This must be designed for a six-foot guy, I thought.  I sat in an uncomfortable folding chair in one of the rearmost rows, fortunately finding a siddur (prayer book) abandoned on the seat next to me.  As the reader droned on the p’sukei d’zimrah (opening prayers) in Hebrew, I flipped through the book in hope of recognizing some familiar words that might guide me to the correct page.

There were more than twenty men in the room, twice as many as are needed for the minyan (quorum) that must be present before the Torah scrolls can be removed from the ark.  The folding chairs were lined up four abreast on either side of a center aisle, a long line extending from the patio doors in the back all the way to the reader’s platform at the front.  I looked over to the four chairs across the aisle, which abutted the makhitzah, the tall latticed divider that split the room in half.  Although I couldn’t see them, I knew that the women of the congregation sat on the other side.  A few plants, probably fake ones, trailed over the divider.

To my left were three bookcases pushed together against the outer wall of the building.  Scanning the shelves in an effort to make it less obvious that I didn’t know where we were in the service, I noticed the presence of multiple copies of various versions of the prayer book, khumashim (Bibles) and a number of volumes that I did not recognize.  Tehillim was the title of one.  Wait, I know what that is:  Psalms.  Scanning my brain for translations that hadn’t been called for in a long time, I was able to cobble enough words together to realize that this book was about the laws of the Sabbath, that one was a volume of Talmud.

Eventually, the rabbi called out the page numbers that we had reached in the “red” and the “blue,” references to the colors of the bindings to the two different versions of the prayer book that were on hand.  Of course, I recognized the Shema (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”) and the Ashrei (Psalm 145), although the latter was read at such lightning speed that I hadn’t gotten through half of it before the reader was on to the next prayer.  Everything was in Hebrew, not at all like the Conservative and Reformed congregations that are more familiar to me, where many of the prayers are read in English.

Then it was time to take out the Torah.  We all stood and the familiar melodies of my childhood brought me back to a warm and comfy place in which I knew all the Hebrew words by heart.  Or perhaps the heat I was feeling was more attributable to the rising temperature of a room full of people, relieved only by the occasional breeze of the rear door opening and closing.  I took out my handkerchief and mopped my brow, happy that my sweat was not because of nerves this time.

The two Torahs, dressed in their finery, were carried up the aisle.  I touched each of them with my prayer book as it went by, then touched the book to my lips.  The ritual of kissing the Torah.  I asked the guy in front of me to reach me a khumash as the reader began the prayers introducing this week’s Torah portion, the final verses of Exodus.  Rather than follow along with the reading, I read the entire portion in the English translation, then went back and began to read it in Hebrew.

Taking a peek at the table of contents, I noticed that my khumash included not only the Pentateuch (the five Books of Moses), but also the five megillot (a Hebrew word meaning “scrolls”).  Now, when I hear the word megillah, I think of Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther that we read on the festival of Purim (coming up in two weeks).  I didn’t know there were four others!  Sure enough, the list included the Song of Songs, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and the Book of Ruth.  Of course, Ruth!  The book we read on the festival of Shavuot in June!  “Your people shall be my people and your God, my God.”  It was all coming back to me now.

While my nose was in the Bible, a gentleman whom I hadn’t noticed before slid up to me and asked me my name.  I told him.  Noticing the perplexed look on his face, I asked him if he wanted my Hebrew name.  He did, so I supplied it.

Next thing I knew, the guy sitting behind me was trying to get my attention.  “Psst!  You’re being called to the Torah!”

It’s not like there aren’t plenty enough men present whom they could call up to the Torah.  I’ve never been here before and these people don’t know me from Adam.  But I guess I should have figured that this would happen, as there is a tradition (stretching back to Abraham in the Book of Genesis) that the stranger in your midst is to be honored.  As to my efforts to blend into the woodwork:  Fail!

I’d been tugging and tugging on my tallis the entire time I had been sitting there, my best efforts unsuccessful at balancing the huge thing evenly about my shoulders.  If I stood up for a prayer, I would step on it.  When I sat back down, I would sit on it.  I got to my feet and began walking up the aisle to the reader’s stand, having narrowly avoided tripping over the tallis and falling on my face as I got out of my seat.

The prayer that is uttered before reading each section of Torah was printed on a laminated page on the reader’s desk.  The rabbi pointed to it and I began reciting.  “Wait!” he said.  I had totally forgotten that first I had to help unroll the scroll and touch my tallis to the first word that would be read.

Then it was time, and I sang out the familiar tune in as loud and clear a voice as I could muster.  I followed along as the cantor sang the verses, after which (I learned) it was time for the refuah sh’lemah, the prayer for healing.  This particular congregation has the tradition of offering the prayer individually for each person coming to the Torah — and for his family.  The cantor asked for my Hebrew name again.  I supplied it and then stood there dumbly.  I didn’t realize that they wanted me to name my family members.  After being gently coached by the rabbi, I said “my wife, my mother, my father, my sisters.”  I felt like an idiot, or like a Miss America contestant who was expected to intone “and world peace.”

As I returned to my seat, I heard a few men call out “Yasher koakh!” (congratulations) and I embarrassedly mumbled thanks.

The service continued and I began to feel pain in my lower back from alternating standing with sitting in a hard chair.  I continued to struggle with the recalcitrant tallis, noticing that it was quite stained, whether with tears or with wine I knew not.

After the regular service ended and a psalm was read, a brief discussion among the men ensued in which it was decided that they would proceed to pray the afternoon service immediately rather than returning to do so later.  I’d been too afraid to pull out my phone to check the time (simply not done in an Orthodox synagogue), but I turned around to look for a clock and noticed that it was nearly 1:00 pm.  I made a haphazard attempt at folding the giant tallis, left it on the back table and slipped out the rear door.  I had been there three hours and I knew my wife would be waiting for me in the car.

My wife could have attended the service, of course, but she is not at all comfortable sitting away from me, on the other side of the mekhitzah with the women, a non-Jew among ultra-Orthodox strangers.  I was glad to hear that she had taken a ride and picked up some breakfast.

“They’re not even done yet,” I told her as soon as I entered the car.  “They’re going to do the afternoon service and then first have Kiddush.  I think we should have our Kiddush at Olive Garden.”  My wife smirked and I knew there would be minestrone and salad in my immediate future.  “You stole their yarmulke,” she pointed out.  It was then that I realized that the black skullcap was still on my head.

While we were eating, we suddenly heard the voice of one of the servers boom out from across the room:  “Attention, Olive Garden!  We have a very special birthday in the house!  Please join me in singing to Ruth, who is 94 years old today!”

We looked over to the table at which the server was standing.  Along with the birthday girl were four or five of her friends, all very snazzily dressed, all of whom looked to be over the age of ninety.  My wife and I were both smiling broadly as we sang along and joined in the applause.

Happy birthday, Ruth!

 

Merry (Jewish) Christmas

ribbon

So.  Christmas Eve already, huh?

Having grown up Jewish, I harbored mixed feelings about Christmas for many years.  Even now, after fifteen years of marriage to a Christian woman whose mother pastors an evangelical church, Christmas doesn’t come naturally to me.

As a child, my family did its best to ignore Christmas even though it was, of course, happening all around us.  We had candle-lighting and latkes on Hanukkah, but we kept it very low key.  None of this eight nights of gifts stuff that is so popular now.

We lived in a suburb of New York City that had a very large Jewish community.  The public schools remained notably neutral, with holiday decorations almost nonexistent.

Then, in my junior year of high school, my mother took a job in the central Hudson Valley.  We had only moved about fifty miles away, but it was a bit of a culture shock.  Suddenly, I was in a high school that had tinsel draped across the hallways, colored strings of blinking lights, Santas, reindeer and the whole shebang.  I was a little uncomfortable at first, but my heart sang.  This was just so beautiful and it made me smile.

This was a huge high school (it was a quarter of a mile from one end to the other and was populated by well over 2,000 students), and I had heard a rumor that there was one other Jewish student in attendance other than my sister and myself.  I never did meet him.

I kept running into walls that I didn’t know were there.

When a fellow student asked me which was my favorite Christmas carol, my answer was something along the lines of “Um…”  Does Maos Tzur count?

I tried out for and was accepted into the school’s musical theater production.  One day I noticed that everyone seemed to have disappeared before a rehearsal.  As I went around looking for my cohorts, I opened a door and found them all crammed into a room holding a prayer meeting.

I made an effort to explain about being Jewish, but it was too foreign of a concept to resonate with my fellows.  I did my best to fit in, which wasn’t too hard since the holiday season was upon us and I was thoroughly enjoying the Christmas spirit.  I tried to remember not to mention this at home.

When my wife and I were married, we made a conscious decision to “keep things neutral.”  No crosses or Stars of David.  No Christmas or Hanukkah decorations.  This worked out just fine for a number of years.  Then my wife’s niece came to live with us while she was in high school.  My wife felt she had to give her a Christmas and I completely agreed.  We unpacked my wife’s boxes of tinsel.  We found a tiny artificial tree that fit well in our apartment.  And I caught myself smiling again.

I have long believed in the value of multiculturalism.  When I first moved from the east coast of the United States to California, I didn’t know what a tortilla was.  But I learned.  Somewhere along the line, I also learned most of the words to “White Christmas,” “O Holy Night” and a lot of other Christmas songs.  And I don’t think anything of eating tacos with my kugel.

But you know what?  This past Sunday was the second consecutive year that I was present for the annual Christmas service at our humble little church.  And this was the second consecutive year that I represented our extended family by singing songs in Hebrew.  Last year, I stuck to Maos Tzur, but this year I performed an Israeli folk song and a much-beloved melody from our Sabbath synagogue service.  By the comments I received, everyone seemed to enjoy it.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, my wife and I traveled to the Central Valley to spend Hanukkah with my family.  And tonight, family and friends will gather at my sister-in-law’s house (with its beautiful Christmas tree) for popcorn, hot chocolate and Christmas movies.  Don’t be surprised if the board games come out and someone cranks up the karaoke machine.  In the morning, we will open gifts while the Christmas music plays from the docking station in the living room.  Later on, we will have Christmas dinner.

And I know I am going to enjoy every last minute of it.

Peace on earth, good will toward men.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

 

Daily Prompt: Or is the New I (The Whichness of What)

Today’s Daily Prompt challenges bloggers to go over to a favorite blog and pick out the fourth and fourteenth words to complete the phrase “___ is the new ___.”

I knew right away that I would cast my lot with A Clown on Fire and hope that one of the two critical words wasn’t an embarrassing swear.  (I still love you, Eric, even though you have an insufferable potty mouth.)

Well, didn’t I just draw the booby prize?  Apparently, “or” is the new “I.”

I could have laughed at the ridiculousness of this, proceeding to another blog post haste.  But that would be cheating, and what kind of example is that to set for my fellow bloggers?

My predicament is reminiscent of a story my father likes to tell of his elementary school days in New York City during World War II.  All the men were off fighting in the European and Pacific theaters and every teacher was of the female persuasion.  Most of them were “old biddies,” as Dad tells it, doddering meanies who, in better times, would have long since retired.

These were teachers who, turning red in the face when a student misbehaved, would shake the hapless kid by the shoulders and yell at the top of her lungs: “What sort of family do you come from?  What sort of parents do you have?  Were you raised in a barn??!!”

Now, my father reports that he enjoyed playing pranks and showing off his sassy mouth just a bit too much for the teachers’ refined tastes.  For example, when sternly told “Take your seat!,” he would lift the chair off the floor and, with an innocent expression, ask “where should I take it to?”  As you may imagine, his ability to engender mirth and merriment made him rather popular with his classmates.

Of course, there were consequences.  Among the worst of the punishments he experienced was being required to stay after school to write an essay on “the whichness of what.”

I have often wondered how I would attack such a task.  As “whichness” is itself a nonce word, I suppose it could be assigned any meaning desired, à la Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear.  Perhaps influenced by the approach of Halloween, I rather think I would misspell the word as “witchness” and write a good old fashioned ghost story.

But I digress.  More important subjects beg our attention.  After all, or is the new I, you know.

“Or” is the epitome of choice, and choice is what we all want, isn’t it?  Not according to the current Ford Focus commercial, “And is Better.”  And here I was thinking that we resent having things forced on us, that we want to be the ones who get to choose.  Apparently, I am wrong.  We don’t want choice — we want it all!  To hell with “or;” we want “and!”

But what of the “I,” the ego, the self?  If, contrary to Ford’s assertion, or (not and) is the new I, then we have allowed the overwhelmingly desire for choice to completely take over our identity.  Instead of seeing ourselves as a teeming mass of family background, education, hopes, dreams and loves, we have given it all up for the privilege of choice.  Tell me not who you really are, instead tell me what your choices were and which you selected.

Personally, I’ve always seen myself as something of a rebel, at least when it comes to choices.  Forget Choices A, B, C or D.  Just mark me down as “none of the above.”

 

Daily Prompt: Home Sweet Homeless

home sweet home

My parents retired from their professional careers in 1994.  They took a year to fix up their suburban New York house, sell it and move to California.  This was the house in which I grew up.  We moved out of a fourth floor walkup in the Bronx and into this brand new home in Rockland County when I was six years old.  Except for four years in college and a stint in graduate school, I lived there until I was well past the age of thirty.  For all that time, the downstairs family room had my mother’s framed embroidery displayed proudly on the wall:  “To know how sweet a home may be, just lock the door but keep the key.”

By the mid-nineties, my sisters were both married and had moved west to Silicon Valley with their engineer husbands.  They started having babies and my parents decided they wanted to be a part of the lives of their grandchildren.

When they retired, I happened to be working in the composition room of a publisher of dozens of local real estate magazines.  You know, the ones with all the pictures of houses and the highly abbreviated captions:  4 BR, 2½ BA, EIK, FDR, motivated seller!

I felt a pang in my heart the day I saw a grainy black and white photo of my childhood home in one of our paper bound books that had just come hot off the press.

And that’s when I decided to quit my job and move to California, too.

I camped out on my sister’s couch for about four months until she kicked me out.  Then I moved in with my other sister.  Turned out Silicon Valley was not exactly the Promised Land for those of us without engineering degrees.

My parents had placed all their belongings in storage.  They were living in a hotel while they looked at houses all over the Central Valley.  Should they buy an existing house or have one custom built the way they did thirty years earlier?  “We’re homeless!” they told me.

I hadn’t thought about this story in years, but it came back to me a couple of months ago when I learned that I’d be laid off from my job and that we’d have to relocate.  One of my employees asked me whether my wife and I were going to “move back home.”

Like my parents twenty years ago, my first thought was “We’re homeless!”

But instead I carefully chose my words and said “there really isn’t any place that I could honestly call home.”

We moved to the desert from Fresno more than three years ago, but we certainly weren’t going back there.  In any event, we lived there for only four years, so I wouldn’t consider it home by any means.  Before that we were in Modesto, which is where my wife and I were married.  As a single guy, I moved all around New England and back and forth to New York.

My wife and I had an interesting discussion about this.  “I guess I would call California home,” she told me.  This makes sense, as she was born here in the Golden State and has never lived anywhere else.

Does this mean that I should call New York home? Michelle W’s Daily Prompt post asked “when you’re away from home, what person, thing or place do you miss the most?” Thus, to answer my own question, I would need to decide whether there is any person, thing or place that I miss in New York. I can honestly say that there is not.

I haven’t seen my childhood home in 18 years now, although I can mentally map every inch of it.  But I wouldn’t want to go back there.  A few years ago, I found a picture of it on Google Maps’ Street View.  I didn’t even recognize it.  It had been painted a different color and tall trees had been planted in front.  I had to check twice to make sure it was the same place I had lived in for three decades.

I have no desire to return to that locale, which is a good thing, because my memories no longer jibe with reality.  As they say, you can’t go home again.

Did I say home?  Maybe New York really is my home.  I have few relatives on the east coast and therefore have little incentive to visit.  It’s been so many years since I’ve been back there.  I keep telling myself that one day I will go back, if only to show the old stomping grounds to my wife.  And it is with dread in my heart that I know the day is likely to come when I will have to return for a funeral.

We have a family plot in that colossal cemetery that goes on for miles out by LaGuardia Airport in Queens.  Do those graves mean that this my real home?  I remember the Hebrew and English names carved so carefully into the granite and how we always left little pebbles atop the polished headstones, as if to say “we were here.”

So, at least for today, I would have to say, as my wife does, that California is my home.  It’s where I hang my hat.  It’s what my driver’s license says and where I get my mail.  But in a real sense, I am “in California” but not “of California.”  On the other hand, I hail from New York but have no longer have any current ties there.

I am reminded of the abandoned dog who shows up unwelcomed on a stranger’s front porch.  The owner steps out the front door and claps his hands to chase the dog away.  “Go home!”

And where exactly would that be?

 

The First Boy Babysitter in Spring Valley, New York – Part Two

Continued from yesterday:  An excerpt from my memoir work-in-progress, Walking to New Jersey.

“The Pop Tart Malfunction” is part 2 of a chapter titled The First Boy Babysitter in Spring Valley, New York.  I hope you enjoy it!  All comments and suggestions welcomed.

By the time I reached the middle of my sophomore year of high school, I realized that the flame of my old junior high babysitting dream still burned brightly and that the only way to consummate this desire was to get off my ass and go do something about it.  So on a cold Saturday afternoon in January, I pinched a handful of index cards that I knew my mother kept in the big hutch in the dining room and wrote my name and phone number on each, along with BABYSITTER in capital letters.  Then I pulled on my parka, woolen hat and mittens and told my parents I was going to take a walk down the street and back.

I stuck the cards in the pocket of my winter coat and zipped it up so that no one would suspect anything or know what I was up to.

I walked a block or so, passing Stella Drive and entering the “new development,” a place where most of the houses were occupied by families with young kids and where I wouldn’t be likely to run into anyone I knew.  I was more than a little embarrassed regarding what I was about to do and I certainly didn’t want anyone from Ramapo High going around blabbing to their friends about how I must really be a girl.

We hadn’t had snow in several weeks; the sky was clear and an icy breeze blew straight down the new sidewalk as if making an effort to follow me on my rounds.  My heart beat out of my chest each time I walked down a driveway, approached a door and rang the bell to pass out my handwritten card to some wanly smiling mother or father who would really rather have been left alone to the weekend chores.  They humored this fat kid bundled up against the wind, some admiring the spunk of a prospective entrepreneur, others just wishing I’d get lost.

When my index cards were gone and my cheeks and toes felt entirely numb, I hurried home and hoped for the best.  Maybe one of those nice couples would have an event to attend on a Saturday night and their regular babysitter would already have another gig and no grandma or aunt would be available to step into the breach.  I didn’t obsess about it; it was as if I had taken a test and now there was nothing I could do but wait for the grades to come back.  Besides, I wanted to remove myself somewhat from what I had just done.  Perhaps if I pretended that it never happened, no one would know.  Well, my parents and my sisters knew, but as far as I was concerned, no one else needed to know until I started getting calls for jobs.  Then everyone would be proud of me and maybe even a little jealous because I’d be making my own money.  Patience, I knew, was the key.  I figured the black wall phone in the kitchen would have to ring eventually.

Only it didn’t.  Not to be deterred, a few weekends later I made up some more index cards and tried again.  This time I went in the other direction, trudging halfway up Alexander Avenue and then up the big Harmony Road hill before I started ringing doorbells again.

I finally hit pay dirt.  A divorced woman on Trinity Place had two little boys and needed someone to be there when they got off the school bus every afternoon and to watch them until she arrived home from work a couple of hours later.  And she was willing to pay a dollar an hour, which I thought was a small fortune.  From eavesdropping on the girls at the bus stop, I   knew that the older ones were getting 75 cents per hour and the younger ones only 50 cents.  What I didn’t yet know was that I was going to earn every penny.  For the time being, however, I was overcome with joy.  I had done it!  Now I had to prove to the world that boys could be successful babysitters, too.  Why should girls have all the fun and make all the money?

I immediately reread my Baby-Sitter’s Guide — twice.  I had kept it stashed clandestinely under my bed for more than two years.  The author suggested bringing a special babysitter’s bag to each assignment.  The bag, she explained, should contain some toys and games to keep the kids amused in case they get bored or cranky and you start running out of ideas.

My first stop was the broom closet in the kitchen, the place where all the folded-up grocery bags lived beside the broom, the dustpan and the cleaning brushes.  But it wasn’t a paper bag from Waldbaum’s I was looking for this time.  I wanted something a little more classy for my first job.  I pulled all the bags out onto the kitchen floor tiles until I found just what I had been looking for.  Hiding in the back was a plastic shopping bag that my mother had brought back from Florida.  It was green and white with the logo of Britt’s department store emblazoned on both sides.  I raided my own closet as well as the big double closet in Becky and Ruth’s bedroom, harvesting a checker set, an old picture book and some coloring books and crayons.  Little did I know that, before long, the checkerboard would be torn down the middle, several checkers would go missing, the crayons would be broken in pieces and the coloring books would be scribbled on in purple and green.

And these were good kids already.  It’s just that Scott and Jason were four and six years old.  I was fifteen years old, and each of those boys independently had far more energy than I did.  Sharon Sherman’s book notwithstanding, I really had no idea what I was getting into.  I jumped in blindly and figured things out as I went along.

My boys were latchkey children from a very early age.  Jason carried his house key on an elastic cord around his neck, much as my sisters and I did.  After being cooped up in school all day, they tore off the bus at the corner, running as fast they could up the grassy slope of lawn (or the driveway in winter) to unlock the front door.

The first order of business was always a snack.  Scott and Jason were creatures of habit; each day, their mother left three Pop Tarts on the kitchen table, one for each of the boys and one for me.  We’d unwrap, toast and eat.  Dishes went in the sink and the boys were off to watch a half hour of cartoons, lying on the floor in Mom’s bedroom.  Once Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig had done their thing, the show belonged to me.  At least I thought it did.  It didn’t take too long before I learned that it was entirely their show and that I was little more than a pawn in this operation.

We’d do whatever the boys wanted to for the next hour or so.  This could involve crawling around on all fours to give piggyback rides up and down the hallway, wrestling and roughhousing on the carpet, or on the rare occasion when I was very lucky, playing a board game from their huge stash.

For a little while, my employer had a man named Vince living in her home.  I never figured out whether he was a boarder or a boyfriend.  He was always just — there.  He generally stayed downstairs and did not bother us.

One day, I nearly set the poor woman’s house on fire.  Let’s just say that we experienced a Pop Tart malfunction.  I don’t know whether it was an electrical problem or perhaps the toast crumbs hadn’t been cleaned out in a while.  All I can say is that the toaster became stuck.  And I mean really stuck.  And I couldn’t unstick it.  The Pop Tarts were burning black, smoke was starting to fill the kitchen, and I was unable to force those toaster handles up.  I pulled and yanked at the plug in a desperate attempt to separate it from the outlet before we all went up in flames.  By this time, both boys were yelling “Vince! Vince!” and, horrified, I joined in the chorus.

Just then, that dastardly plug popped out of the wall.  Fortunately, none of the houses in our neighborhood had smoke detectors back then.  Vince finally climbed halfway up the stairs to the landing and poked his head up.  I assured him that everything was okay, we had it under control.

From the time I stepped off my own school bus in the afternoon, I had about 40 minutes before I had to meet the boys up the hill at their house.  After a while, my initial feeling of responsibility waned.  With everything in my Britt’s bag destroyed, I didn’t bother to bring it anymore.  In fact, I didn’t bother arriving at the boys’ home on time after the first couple of months.  I knew they would let themselves in and would be munching their Pop Tarts or watching Bugs and the Road Runner whenever I sauntered in.  I knew I’d get my dollar regardless.

After about four months of babysitting every weekday afternoon, I decided I had had enough.  My excuse for quitting was that I had final exams to study for.  I had already stayed a month longer than I wanted to, but I kept putting off my departure for the sake of those boys.  At the end, I was dragging myself up the hill every day.  On my final day, I felt a little guilty about abdicating my responsibilities, but mostly I just felt liberated.  Free to relax when I got home from school every day!

The dollar bills had piled up.  I would throw them loose in the top drawer of my dresser until I had built up an impressive collection.  The funny thing was that money didn’t mean anything to me in real terms.  There was nothing in particular I was saving for, nothing I dreamed of buying.  I just wanted to have some money of my own in case.  That is, in case I had a hankering for something that my parents didn’t want to buy for me.  What never occurred to me was that:

  1. My parents weren’t going to allow me to purchase anything that they disagreed with, whether the money was mine or not.
  2. When I did ask my parents for something special, they would remind me that I could now buy it with my own money if I wanted it that badly.

This wasn’t working out the way I had planned.  Not at all.