My Inner Millennial

Sunday morning.

My wife got up early, got ready and headed over to IHOP to meet her cousin and the cousin’s husband along with her elderly aunt for breakfast.  It was her aunt’s 87th birthday.

Meanwhile, I slept in after having stayed up late last night playing games online.  When my wife got home a bit after noon, it was my turn to go out for breakfast.  I headed to my favorite local buffet place, where even a vegan can pig out on steamed vegetables, potatoes, salad, fruit, roasted jalapeños and spaghetti with marinara sauce.

On Saturday, my wife and I ran around doing errands in the morning, then picked up our niece and made the long drive up to Chico to spend the evening with extended family at a church event.

My wife and I have been married for nearly 17 years.  Among the many joys of our married life is the fact that we do some things together and others alone.  It’s a nice balance.  We also spend a lot of time sitting just a few feet away from each other, both of us on our laptops, she with the TV on and me listening to music over headphones, she on our landlord’s mini-couch and me at the kitchen table in our tiny rental cottage.

The logistics of maintaining this balance has become more interesting in the last few years.  Before that, we could each have separate plans and execute them simultaneously.  On a Saturday morning, for example, I might head off to synagogue while my wife went shopping or met a friend.

All that changed when we moved from the desert on the California/Arizona border to northern California two years ago.  Having been laid off, I was out of work and didn’t need a car to commute.  So we loaned one of our cars to our niece to make it easy for her to get to community college in the mornings.  She promptly wrecked it, and we’ve been a one-car family ever since.

In some respects, this has been a good thing.  In addition to having fewer car expenses (things like oil changes and other maintenance, insurance and annual registration), there is the togetherness factor.  When you live out in the country as we do, it is no surprise that having only one car makes for a tendency to go more places together.

When we each “do our own thing,” however, it is of necessity on a sequential rather than a simultaneous basis.  When you have one car between you, you have to take turns.  This might not be the case in a more urban location, but out here there is nothing in walking distance and not much in the way of transportation.  I get a kick out of watching the neighbor’s roosters pecking around, photographing the wild peacocks and visiting with our landlord’s cat.  But that only goes so far.  If you’re desperate, you can always call a taxi to take you downtown or to Wal-Mart, but that can fairly quickly run into some serious money.  So the fact of the matter is that when one of us is out and about alone, the other is stuck at home, also alone.

Then there is the little matter of getting to work.  My place of employment is about twelve miles away, meaning that either my wife has to get up early and make two round-trips downtown each day to haul me in and home, or she gets to sit at home with no car all day.

Circumstances have happily converged to make this situation work well most of the time.  My wife works from home, so it’s possible for her to be without a car.  However, I am uncomfortable knowing that she can’t get out of here if she needs to do so.  Being stuck at home also means that she can’t run any errands, which definitely puts a crimp in smooth household operation.  Plus, I would have to leave the house at oh-dark-thirty if I am to have any chance of finding a parking space near my place of employment downtown.  I am delighted that, 95% of the time, my wife takes me to work, picks me up in the evening and has the car at her disposal all day.

In its old age, our second car was given to us by my parents when they purchased a newer model some years ago.  Throughout our marriage, they have generously provided us with their old vehicles rather than trading them in.  This has been a huge advantage for us, as we’ve never been able to afford more than one car payment.  Now that we’ve been down to one car for a couple of years, we’ve started to think about buying another.  Our current vehicle has been paid off for a while now, but after struggling through a year of unemployment, I get a bit panicky at the thought of having a monthly car payment again.

There are a number of options out there.  We could pay cash to buy an old beater just to drive around town, but who knows what’s going to go wrong with it and how much money we’ll end up having to pour into it for repairs.  And even old, high mileage vehicles don’t come cheap anymore.

Speaking of old, high mileage vehicles, our current car fits that category nicely.  We have been fortunate that, so far, most of the required repairs have not broken the bank.  But it’s not going to last forever.  Pretty soon, the piece-of-crap car that I envision taking to work, to Wal-Mart or out for brunch is going to be the very vehicle we now own.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to wring another 100,000 miles out of it, but really, it’s the luck of the draw.  I would happily bite the bullet and sign for a car payment on a new vehicle for my wife to drive around while I used our current car.  However, I know that, sooner or later, our trusty is going to sputter its last and repair to that great junkyard in the sky.  At that point, we’ll be right back to square one, only with the albatross of a car payment around our necks.  You can see why it’s tempting to stick with just one vehicle for as long as possible, despite the attendant inconveniences.

I’m guessing that we’re in the minority, having attained the status of seniors and being a one-car family who has always lived in rentals and never owned a home.  I recently read an article in The Atlantic indicating that this type of consumer behavior is a lot more common than it used to be, although not so much among those who’ve attained my age.  In “The Cheaptest Generation,” Thompson and Weissmann point out that sales of new cars and homes are way down, and that this phenomenon seems to be more than just a product of the recessionary economy.  Indeed, the popularity of carless lifestyle choices has increased among millennials, the driving force behind the popularity of Zipcar, Uber and Airbnb.  Many young adults seem to prefer living closer to the urban core, where the action is.  Live music, restaurants, bars and shops within walking or biking distance have become more appealing to twentysomethings in recent years.

When describing millennials, one would be remiss in failing to mention the matter of extended adolescence.  Young adults struggling under crushing burdens of student loan debt often choose to live with their parents for a decade or more beyond their college days.  I should know.  I went that route myself, and not just because of student loans.  I liked having all that disposable income to eat out every day, see Broadway shows, spend weekends in Atlantic City and go on trips to places like California, where I eventually settled.  It really isn’t very appealing for a recent college graduate earning grunt wages to have to spend every penny on the rent and the car.  And, assuming the American dream is not dead (I know, don’t laugh), sponging off one’s parents for as long as possible makes it a lot easier to save for a down payment on a home.

I graduated from college in 1980, took one more semester of courses toward a teaching certificate that I never completed, then moved back home with my parents and worked the night shift in a chemical plant for seven years before heading off to graduate school in Massachusetts.  There, I lived off my parents’ dime for another two years before taking out student loans to pay for my last year due to circumstances too complex to get into here.  Twenty-five years later, I’m still paying on those student loans.  And that was for one year, friends.  I can’t imagine the debt facing those of us who had to borrow for their entire college educations.  The real irony is that I then spent decades working at jobs that didn’t require college.  Most of my bosses didn’t even have a degree.  I was in my late forties before I snagged a job that nominally required college.

I should mention that life was no financial picnic after graduate school.  Even with two degrees, I still ended up working for ten dollars an hour and living back with my parents for another 2½ years.  When I finally moved out, to take a similarly crappy job in a neighboring state, I rented a tiny bedroom that had been an unheated, uninsulated enclosed porch, where I froze all winter.  When it was thirty below zero out, I dressed in layers, including a parka and mittens, sleeping under piles of covers.

When I finally moved to California, I found myself earning ten dollars an hour and only working part-time.  Silicon Valley was not kind to me.  I lived with each of my sisters for several months, until my parents retired and built a house in the Central Valley.  I lived with them for nine months before getting out for good at the ripe old age of 37.

I know I will never own a home, and that’s okay.  Although my current job is far from secure, I no longer earn ten dollars an hour.  I know that my graduate degree played a part in my landing this position.  My wife and I have paid off all our debts other than my ever-present student loans, and we hope to clear even those out in another two or three years.

True, my wife and I have only one car between us and we rent a tiny mother-in-law cottage out among the goats, horses and chickens of the exurbs.  We may not attend Broadway shows or travel to Hawaii, but with both of us working, we are able to eat out when we want to, buy Christmas presents for all the nephews and nieces, and go to Reno when the urge hits.  I even get to play in expensive Scrabble tournaments several times each year.

We may not have “created wealth” by purchasing a home and living in it, but without children of our own, leaving an inheritance isn’t much of a priority.  I am aware that my parents think it is a disgrace that I haven’t done as well as they did.  Each generation is supposed to surpass the previous, or so goes traditional wisdom.  “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations,” my mother likes to mock.

Ultimately, however, it’s all relative.  Having lived a year with my wife’s family after I was laid off, complete with the joys of standing in line at food banks when my unemployment checks ran out, I appreciate what we do have so much more than I did before.  It’s nice to be alone in our cozy little rental.  And having just one car between us doesn’t seem so bad after all.

You might say I’m channeling my inner millennial.

Alone and Together

I suspect that among the secrets of a long and successful marriage is achieving a balance between “together time” and “alone time.”

Alone time does not necessarily imply being without company; it includes time spent with family, friends and colleagues in social and work situations that do not involve one’s spouse.  That isn’t to say that a person doesn’t also need some time to be totally alone.  Everyone wants some private time to commune with a book, an iPod or a pet.  It’s also healthy to have some time to just sit and think, without spouse, children or boss yelling for you from the next room or office.

My wife and I seem to have traveled through every possible permutation on the alone/together spectrum during our sixteen years of marriage to date.  Well, all but one.  We’ve never had to live apart, thank God.  I remember my parents doing that when I was a teenager.  The demands of their careers took them to different states, so they did the “I’ll visit you this weekend, you visit me next weekend” thing for several years.  I was already off to college when most of that occurred, but I know it was hard on my youngest sister.  At the time, it didn’t occur to me how this living arrangement was affecting my parents.  In the thoughtless way of teenagers, I figured that they chose it, so it’s their problem.

I thought about this recently when we learned that a married couple who are friends of ours are considering doing the weekend commute thing to maximize their career opportunities.  You just have to wonder whether there’s more to it than meets the eye.  Perhaps, like my parents all those years ago, they aren’t getting along with each other as well as they’d like us to think.

During the first few years of our marriage, my wife and I each did stints working the graveyard shift at the phone company.  Our employer did everything possible to keep spouses off the same shift, so there were a few times when we felt like ships passing in the night.  Although we didn’t have a lot of together time, it wasn’t as rough as one might expect.  When you work “the grave,” the only thing that really matters is sleep.

After several years during which we both worked more normal hours and had evenings and weekends together, I was hired to work in a remote area out in the middle of the desert.  My wife left her job to move out there with me, which left her at home alone all day.  She knew no one and her family and friends were 600 miles away.  We lived in a hick town where there was absolutely nothing to do and the nearest mall or movie theater was an hour and a half away.  Unless she went to the grocery store, my wife was stuck at home.  She spent a lot of time texting, instant messaging, emailing and Facebooking friends in other parts of the state and country.  To make matters worse, my work left me tired and wanting to go to sleep early and catch extra sleep on the weekends.  When I arrived home after work on a Friday, I generally wanted only a meal and to commune with the back of my eyelids, which would leave my wife alone some more while I snored.  After being alone all week, my wife understandably wanted to get out of town and do something.  We did our best to compromise, dividing our weekends between staying home and escaping.

After I got laid off from that job, we relocated back to northern California and moved in with my wife’s family.  Suddenly, we found ourselves at the opposite end of the spectrum.  Instead of being alone all the time, my wife couldn’t escape her family for a minute.  As I was unemployed and looking for work for nearly a year, I got to witness this firsthand.

The recipe goes something like this:  Grab your husband and, to save money during a period of unemployment of unknown duration, move in with your mother in a house with just one bathroom for the three of you.  Your sister and her kids and granddaughter will live about a mile away.  You will become the chief form of day care for your grandniece.  Oh, and make that house the parsonage of a church with the doorbell ringing and parishioners and community members and the homeless banging on your door at all hours of the day and night.  Wake up and stumble into the living room to find a strange woman sitting on your couch.  Be awoken at two in the morning by a man standing outside and yelling “Pastor! Pastor!”

Alone time?  What’s that?

We went from missing family to having them on top of us every minute.  Alas, in life it is often difficult to find the mythical happy medium.  There were a few weekends when we rented a hotel room thirty minutes away just so my wife could escape the constant going and running and doing for someone or other.  When we first arrived here, it felt good to be tucked in among extended family; now, we cherish any opportunity for just the two of us to be together.

This past week, Pastor Mom went out of town for a couple of days, during which time my wife happened not to have any babysitting duties.  She actually had the house to herself and could hear herself think for once.  She says the peace and quiet was heavenly.

In about two or three months, we plan to move into our own apartment in a location much closer to my work.  Not only do we look forward to putting the regimen of commuting behind us, but it will be great for my wife and I to have regular “alone together” time while my wife can have her “alone alone” time during the day.  It sounds like marital bliss to me.

And if we miss the family, well, they’ll only be about half an hour away.  I’m sure we’ll still spend a lot of time with them, but after all the running around, we’ll have a place to which we can escape.  A place where we don’t have to remember to lock the bathroom door or watch where we toss our clothes.  In other words, we’ll be able to go home.

Together.

Alone.

The Marriage Gene

My sister called last night to tell me about a hot job prospect in the Bay Area.  She’s hoping she gets the job so that she can move back into her house at the end of the renters’ lease term.  I don’t blame her for hoping that her days as a traveling sonographer might be over.

Just as she called, I received a text from my cousin on the east coast.  This is starting to get freaky.  First, my sister, who I often don’t hear from for months, calls me twice in one week.  Then my only first cousin, whom I haven’t seen or spoken to since 1996, appears out of nowhere.  “Who is this?” I asked when he texted me.  I didn’t even recognize the area code.

I am guessing that my cousin, who is only two weeks older than I am, is trying to reconnect with family for some reason.  Apparently, my brother-in-law in Texas finally accepted a Facebook friend request that my cousin made two years ago.  In our younger days, my cousin had a little crush on my Texas sister, but of course nothing came of it since we’re first cousins and all.  Instead, he ended up marrying one of her best friends.

Putting two and two together, I suppose my Texas sister or her husband gave my cousin the phone number for my Bay Area sister.  Then she gave him my number.

My cousin and I are such opposites that, from childhood on, we never had much to do with one another.  He was always a thin, tall, good-looking guy, while I’ve always been short and obese.  I was always well-behaved and did well in school, while my cousin had a sassy mouth, was constantly in trouble and struggled with grades.  My earliest memory of my cousin is when, at the age of five, in a fit of pique he took off his shoe and threw it at my grandparents’ console television.

I’m sure that a good part of my cousin’s early problems were related to his upbringing.  His parents were constantly screaming at each other and, I am told, had fistfights.  His father was a skinny little 98 pound guy, while his mother was a huge woman with a huge voice.  They both had huge tempers.

My parents bought a house in the suburbs and moved us out of New York City when I was six years old, while my cousin slept in the living room of a tiny, roach-infested apartment until he graduated from college.

When we were in our early twenties, my cousin bemoaned his bad luck with women and wondered aloud why a fat guy like me always had a girlfriend.  I didn’t bother mentioning that personality might have something to do with it.  There are not a lot of people who find a wiseass endearing.

I haven’t felt the need to keep in contact with my cousin over the years.  At some level, I think I associate him with bad childhood memories.  So now he gets in touch with me via text and says he wants to call.  What can I do?  It would be rude to tell him not to call.  Maybe I need to give the guy another chance.  However, considering that he lives 3,000 miles away, what hope would we have for a normal familial relationship even under the best of circumstances?

I texted him back, telling him to call me on the weekend.  This should be interesting.

In text, I explained to him that I work in state government and that my wife and I enjoy a happy life.  “That’s good,” he responded.

Then he texted me a photo of himself with his wife.

His third wife.

My cousin has always chosen his partners badly.  When we were younger, I thought that, because he had difficulties with women, he settled for whatever he could get.  First it was his New York wife, my sister’s friend, with whom he had two sons.  Then he divorced her and married his New Jersey wife, who referred to him as “my prince.”  Then he divorced her and married his North Carolina wife, whom I hear has cancer and is undergoing the hell that is chemotherapy and radiation.

My sister says that, if NC wife passes on, Cuz will quickly move on to a fourth wife.  Her theory is that some people have a “marriage gene,” an innate trait that compels them to hitch their wagon to “anyone with an XX chromosome.”

My cousin’s mother died of cancer about a dozen years ago, and his father, already past the age of 70, remarried.  His new wife suffers from a variety of serious illnesses.  Sis is laying bets that, should she pass away, my uncle, now well in his eighties, will marry again.

My father says that a second marriage represents the triumph of hope over experience.  I wonder what a third marriage represents.

When a relationship fails, we often resort to the defense mechanism of blaming the shortcomings of our partner.  After a couple of failed marriages, however, what would make one think that a subsequent attempt would fare any better?  At some point, a reasonable person would take a good hard look in the mirror and say “maybe it’s me!”

After my sister divorced her husband, he stated that he “doesn’t want to die alone” and promptly remarried.  Someone should have broken the news to him that we all die alone.  Nevertheless, I get it that some people just can’t stand to be without a steady bed partner, particularly after years of marriage.  I get it that having lots of family, friends and coworkers isn’t the same thing as having a life partner.  Or an until-I-get-divorced-again partner, at any rate.

Or maybe my sister is right.  Perhaps there really is a marriage gene.

Two Cars

We’ve always been a two-car couple.  His ‘n hers vehicles just seemed natural.  My wife would go to her job, I would go to my job.  On the weekends, we could each run our own errands.  If one of us had someone to visit or an event to attend, the other wouldn’t be left with the choice of tagging along or sitting at home.

This all came to a, shall we say “crashing” halt some months ago when my teenaged niece managed to wreck my vehicle.  We’ve been down to one car for a while now, and it’s actually starting to feel normal.  My poor wife definitely has the raw end of the deal, as she gets to ferry me through rush hour traffic back and forth to work in Sacramento every weekday.

Although we have found that we can get along just fine with one vehicle, I can’t help but look back fondly on the days when we lived in Fresno and owned two fully paid for cars.  My wife purchased her car long before we were married and, through careful maintenance and mostly local driving, made it last for years and years.  As for my car, well, I had the good fortune to obtain it at no charge, thanks to the generosity of my parents.  For decades, they would buy a new car every four or five years and would give me their old vehicle rather than trading it in.  For a long time, I was totally broke and this was the only thing that made it possible for me to have a car, and by extension (this being California), to have a job.  So my wife and I rolled along in the marital bliss that comes with not having to factor a car payment into the monthly budget.

As for our two vehicles, they were as different as night and day.  Women may be from Venus and men may be from Mars, but the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our cars.

My wife had a little economy car known as a Nissan; I had a big bomber called a Tishrei.

If I had my druthers, I’d pass over the opportunity to buy a Nissan.  It’s a crumby vehicle, but what can you expect will all that matzo?  One thing I can say is that it got good gas mileage.  We hardly ever got gas at all.  In fact, you could even say the thing was constipated.  The owner’s manual (for some reason the cover says “Hagaddah Shel Pesach”) guaranteed it to be 100% hametz-free.

We only had to fill up the Nissan every eight days, but it was rather finicky.  The engine wouldn’t run efficiently unless we used a high test called Malaga, and we’d have to throw in an additive, one part horseradish to two parts haroseth.  As the Nissan aged, it developed a rattle in the chassis, which (thankfully) could be relieved by cracking open the driver’s side door for Elijah.  Eventually, we began detecting an unsavory odor emanating from under the hood.  I thought it smelled like eggs, but my wife seemed to think it smelled more like a burning shank bone.  If we left a pan of salt water on the radiator, the odor would dissipate after a little while.  We’d use any excuse to blow the Nissan’s horn, which sounded a funky little tune that sounded for all the world like mah nishtanah halaylah hazeh.

In the end, we were just counting the days of the Omer til we could get rid of the Nissan.  If only we had some bread, man.

The Tishrei was another story entirely.  Everything about this car was enormous:  The cabin, the trunk, the gas tank.  It was like you could fit Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot in there, and still have room for Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.  Every time we filled it up we’d spend at least 50 bucks.

When my parents first gave us the Tishrei, it was early in September.  It was a cool color, kind of reddish brown, like apples and honey or something.  We had to go to the Bay Area to pick it up, because they had left it at the airport when they flew to visit my sister in Texas for the High Holy Days.  There they would buy their new car, a Heshvan, and drive it back to California.

With all the luggage room, this car was great for going on road trips.  And we’d go on a lot of them in the Tishrei, mostly to synagogue.  But the Tishrei was already a high mileage vehicle, and it didn’t take long before it started to develop a lot of problems.  It was always something.  One day it would be shaking like a lulav and the next day it would start emanating a sour lemon odor (it was actually citron, we learned later).  And (I must confess), a lot of the problem could be attributed to the error of my ways.  Every time I got in that Tishrei, something came over me.  It was like I couldn’t help myself.  Maybe it was that new year smell, but I felt the urge to drive fast.  And, oh baby, that thing could move.  I’d step on the gas and be halfway from Tzom Gedaliah to Chol Hamo’ed before I could say “Tashlich.”  Yes, we had a lot of fun in the Tishrei, so it was hard not to forgive its sins.

And we loved to blow the Tishrei’s horn even more than the Nissan’s.  The looks on people’s faces were priceless when they suddenly heard a blast of “Tekiyaaaahhhh!”

About Uncle Guacamole

Uncle Guacamole is a Borscht Belt comedian who still thinks it’s 1963.  Although a transplant to northern California, he left his heart at Grossinger’s midnight buffet.  His dream is to buy a kochaleyn in Loch Sheldrake, drive to Monticello to shop the outlets on Sundays and play the Concord for all eight nights of Passover.  Please don’t tell him that the Catskill comedy scene went the way of vaudeville forty years ago.  You might make him cry.

Uncle Guacamole can often be seen driving Highway 99, which he calls the Quickway, on the way to the abandoned site of Mammoth Orange, which for some inexplicable reason he refers to as “The Red Apple.”  He is still searching for Wurtsboro Hill and wondering when the land became so flat.  Although he is a big fan of schmaltzy jokes and bad puns, please refrain from throwing rotten tomatoes at him.  (If you do, he’ll just break out the jalapeños and make salsa.)  Throwing avocados, however, is perfectly okay, particularly if they are ripe.  At nearly a dollar apiece, he can’t afford to buy them anymore and is going through guacamole withdrawals.  These are marked by profuse sweating of garlic and lemon juice followed by fits of uncontrollable shaking known as the “Oy Veys.”

Fifteen Years of Love

fifteen

Today marks fifteen years since my wife and I began our new life together.

I had considered reminiscing about our wedding and about the early days of our marriage and describing how we had no idea what we were doing and had to figure out absolutely everything from scratch.  I may do that one of these days, but for today I will briefly relate the story of how my wife and I met and how I knew that she was the one.

Many of my contemporaries married young, but I was not among them.  I was a late bloomer at everything I did.  I didn’t drive until I was 21, didn’t have my first date until I was 23, and didn’t tie the knot until I was 40.

My parents were concerned that I’d be alone forever, but I knew there were worse things than that.  One of the reasons I came to California from the east coast was to escape a long-term unhealthy relationship; after I arrived, I proceeded to get myself into two more disastrous relationships.  So being alone didn’t seem so bad by comparison.

Frankly, I didn’t think marriage was for me.  Marriage was something for other people.  People like my parents, who recently celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary — 61 years of fussing and fighting, yelling and arguing.  No, thanks!

I had begun working in a major phone company’s call center.  After seven weeks of training, I was asked to choose shift preferences.  As an inveterate night owl, I asked to work the graveyard shift.  My first day on graveyard was a Saturday night when we were so busy we could barely see straight.  Calls were coming in back to back, one after another.  After about an hour on the phones, I received my first 911 emergency call.  I called for my supervisor as I had been trained, and that’s how I met my wife.  She says she has no memory of that night.

A few months later, I was promoted to trainer.  I had the opportunity to work rotating shifts to perform refresher training with all employees.  I made a point of spending as many days as possible on graveyard so that I could spend time visiting with the lovely shift supervisor.

We had such a nice friendship and I was afraid that it would end if I asked her to go out on a date.  Fortunately, my dear one made the first move and there was no turning back after that.  I knew that I did not want to let this one get away.

I really wanted to propose marriage, but I was concerned that I wasn’t being fair since neither of us had any money.  We’d be poor.  And then there was the matter of an engagement ring.  I visited a few jewelry stores and discovered that even the tiniest diamond ring would cost $700.  As in seven hundred dollars that I did not have.

I wasn’t a religious person.  I didn’t pray or attend worship services.  After being forced to attend some very strict religious schools as a child, I moved completely away from the spiritual as an adult.  So I don’t know what moved me to pray about this.  “Lord,” I prayed one night, “if this is meant to be, please show me a sign.”

I didn’t expect to receive an answer.  It had been years since I had had a relationship with God, and I didn’t know what I believed anymore.

By the next morning, I had forgotten all about having prayed.  I got ready for work and, as I left my apartment and headed for my car, out of the corner of my eye I noticed an envelope peeking out of my mailbox.  When I retrieved it, I was annoyed to see it was a bill from the electric company.  Hadn’t I already paid them this month?

I tore opened the envelope.  My mouth dropped open when I saw that it was a check for a deposit I had made a year and a half earlier and had totally forgotten about.

The check was in the amount of exactly seven hundred dollars.

I had my sign.

I went out and bought the ring that very day.  And the rest is history.

Happy anniversary, my dear.  Thank you for the best fifteen years any man could ever ask for.

 

On Being an Uncle When Love is in the Air

sky heart

My nephews from the Central Valley couldn’t make it up here for Christmas because — gasp! — they were working!  As in they actually have jobs!

I’m so proud of them.  My 24 year old guy is attending nursing school and working in a renal dialysis center.  My 30 year old guy has worked for years as an EMT in the trauma center of a major hospital.

Although we didn’t get to share the holidays with them, they took a train and a bus to spend a few days with us this week.  Meanwhile, one of our nieces who lives an hour north of here (also employed — rep in a large health insurance company’s call center) drove down and our two nephews and one niece who live close by have been in and out all weekend.  This meeting of the cousins’ club is now in session!

Some of us made it to church this morning.  Then there was an informal lunch as we all fixed sandwiches, pickles and chips and sat in the living room catching up, with my little grandniece running between all of us, not knowing what on earth to do with so many aunts and uncles.

We’ve been giving the younger crowd space to enjoy the pleasure of their own company, particularly since they don’t get to do this all that often.  Last night, they went out to dinner and tonight they’re off to play billiards and, presumably, to listen to music and have a few drinks somewhere.  We’re here at home watching the little one while her mama is serving as the designated driver for the boys.  Good girl!

My nursing student nephew feels like a kid in a candy store.  Apparently there is one guy for every five women in his class.  As for my trauma center nephew, he dropped the bomb when he arrived last night.  The man is in love.

About 1:30 in the morning, we had a long talk that warmed my heart.  Even with some of the family being close by, I don’t have the opportunity for these “uncle moments” every day.  They always appear out of the blue and they always leave me open-mouthed, wondering “wow, did that just happen?”

Author Raymond Carver famously said that “it ought to make us ashamed when we talk like we know what we’re talking about when we talk about love.”  And I will be the first to admit that I have no idea what I’m talking about, that I have no pearls of wisdom to offer.  I take it one day at a time, just as all of us do.  Life’s a dance you learn as you go, dear nephew.

He was afraid that we wouldn’t think well of him when we learned that his new love is ten years his junior.  I reassured him that much greater age differences separate some couples.  When two hearts speak the same language, age becomes little more than a number.

Of course, his sister and cousins gave him a good-natured ribbing about robbing the cradle.  But we’re all really happy for him and can’t wait to meet her.  My nephew shared with me that he’s been seeing one “sign” after another that he and his girlfriend are meant to be together.  I gently suggested that coincidences regarding names and numbers should not be accorded much weight.

“Is this a serious thing?” we all asked him.

“Very serious,” was his reply.  And so, in our late night talk, I attempted to convey whatever wisdom I could conjure up from fifteen years of marriage.  “I know this sounds more than a little cliché,” I began, “but it is important to have someone to live for.”

“Yes!” he interrupted.  He’d been thinking exactly the same thing, he told me.  He had been feeling aimless, he confessed, with the chores of life a drudgery that was dragging him down.  Until his lady love came along.  Now, he says, he feels a sense of purpose.

He tells me that he’s been plagued by self-doubt for years.  Why is he thirty and still single?  Is there something wrong with him?  He’s heard the whispers and the familial concern.

It’s not like he hasn’t had girlfriends before.  He even shared a home with one for a little while.  But this — oh my goodness, this is something else, something entirely new.

I learned that the two of them are both in the medical field and are both living with and caring for close family members with serious health issues.  They have met each other’s immediate families and have received a universal vote of approval.

They will face challenges, as every couple does.  She works in the daytime while he’s been on graveyard for years.  They live an hour away from each other and usually meet halfway for dinner before he goes in to work.

I tried to assure my nephew that difficulties can be overcome if both parties are committed to make it work no matter what.  That there will inevitably be times when both of you feel like giving up.  You say you feel so honored to hold her hand.  But it is at the not-so-lovely times, when you may least feel the emotion that so consumes you now, that you most need to do just that.

I hear the sound of two hearts singing.  Now melody, now a tight harmony.  Soprano and tenor, rising over and dipping under each other, dipping gingerly across and through, like an aural tango.  Yes, dear nephew, I hear all of this when you talk about her.

You passed around a photo, and we all oohed and aahed admiringly.  We get a kick out of teasing you when you whip out your cell phone and head for the bedroom and close the door.  We understand the longing you must feel being away from her for just a few days.

We’ve all been there.  Some of us remember the feeling fondly.  As for me, dear nephew, may you be as blessed as I have been, with the fire continuing to burn brightly as the years turn into decades of love.

 

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!

 

Sign Language

ily

My niece was selecting her college courses for the spring semester today.  She tells me that she signed up for a class in American Sign Language.

I find it admirable that ASL is now offered as one of the options for satisfying the language requirement at so many institutions of higher learning.  I once worked for the state relay service, where I had to learn at least some basic signs in order to communicate with the deaf staff.

It’s not like I didn’t try.  I even bought a book that had little pictures of signs that I tried to practice.  I was successful in learning how to say “good morning,” “how are you?,” “I’m tired,” “it’s raining” and, most importantly, “I need an interpreter!”

And then I met my wonderful wife, and learned the sign for “I love you” (graphic at the top of this post).

I remember sitting in a nearly deserted 24-hour diner after my night shift, eating with my book open and practicing the signs.  I could see the staff peeking out of the kitchen and laughing at this crazy customer who obviously was trying to communicate with aliens from outer space.

Unfortunately, my signing efforts pretty much came off the rails when I attempted anything beyond the most basic.  I quickly learned that a slight variation of the correct hand movement could result in saying something quite different from what was intended, usually in the most embarrassing fashion possible.

It seemed that no matter how many signs I learned, the concept I needed to express involved a sign that I didn’t yet know.  I’d ask a deaf staff member how to sign a particular word, then promptly forget and have to ask again.  One of my big problems was that a person facing me and demonstrating a particular sign was oriented “backwards.”  Could you please stand next to me and show me?

My niece is really smart and I hope she has much better luck with ASL than I ever did.

Meanwhile, I think my wife and I need to develop our own style of sign language, or shall we say hand signals, to improve our communication skills.

The problem, you see, is that I’m always being shushed because someone is always sleeping.  If it’s not my wife or Pastor Mom who is taking a nap, then my one year old grandniece is over here doing the same.  The bedroom doors must stay open when occupied to benefit from the
heater or air conditioner puffing away in the living room.

“Can you talk any louder?” my wife chastises me.  Well, I have no choice but to admit that I am indeed a loud talker.  It doesn’t help that half the time I am shouting over my headphones, through which music is pumping into my ears at a decibel level that may soon require me to learn sign language for real.  But it’s more than that.  I’m a New Yorker.  Sure, I’ve been living in California for 17 years now, but everywhere I go people tell me that they can still detect my east coast accent.  And the fact is, most of us who were raised in and around New York City are loud talkers.  At least by California standards.  We may not shout, but we speak up and demand to be heard.

For now, I have been handling the situation by texting my wife rather than speaking to her, even though we are a few feet away from each other in the same room.

I know that seems kind of dorky, and I have a better idea:  Sign language.  This will avoid waking whoever may currently be sleeping, and mostly will prevent me from continually pissing off my wife with my loud talking, I humbly propose the following set of hand signals.

As I’ve already indicated, I am no good at learning hand signs, so let’s keep it as simple as possible:  Five signs.  We only need to check how many fingers we are holding up.  We can do this with either hand, so we don’t have to do the backwards thing when determining whether it’s the right hand or the left.

Now, the set of signs will necessarily have to be different for my wife than for myself.

 

My Wife’s Hand Signals

1 finger:  More iced tea, please.  Lots of ice.

2 fingers:  It’s so hot in here, I’m getting a headache.

3 fingers:  Go wash your hands.

4 fingers:  Stop chewing your fingers!

5 fingers:  Please come to bed soon.

 

My Hand Signals

1 finger:  Yes, dear.

2 fingers:  Coffee! Cooooffffeeeeee. . . (Alright, so it’s decaf, but I’m still addicted.)

3 fingers:  Can we please go out to eat somewhere?

4 fingers:  I’m sorry.  Please forgive me.  Um, what was it that I did wrong again?

5 fingers:  I’ll be to bed shortly.  (Translation:  Sometime before 3 a.m.  Yes, I’m blogging again.)

 

The Answer: Fathers

father

We were watching episodes of The Voice on DVR the other night when one of the profiled contestants began discussing his childhood by saying “I grew up with divorced parents, like most kids.”

Say what?

Is it really true that most American children grow up in single parent families today?  The old chestnut about newlyweds having a 50/50 chance of their marriage succeeding is supposed to be woefully out of date.  I found one article that cites the divorce rate in my home state of California to be 8 out of every thousand residents, with the highest divorce rate in the United States being Alaska’s, with 14 out of every thousand residents having called it quits.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that, nationally, the divorce rate has decreased over the past decade from 4 to 3.6 out of every thousand Americans.  These statistics, of course, are subject to interpretation.  One of the many problems with them is that they refer to the number of people who are divorced in a particular state or nationally, not the number of marriages that fail annually.  However you look at it, though, the anecdotal 50% figure appears to be much higher than reality.

In popular culture, children of divorced parents are painted as pawns in a chess game between battling parents or shuttlecocks swatted back and forth from father’s house to mother’s house.  Examples include such movies as Kramer vs. Kramer, Table for Five, Shoot the Moon, Mrs. Doubtfire, and the list goes on and on.

Of course, not all divorcing parents are awarded joint custody of their children and not all fathers stick around.  Then there are the millions of children who, while not reflected in the divorce statistics, are raised by their mothers exclusively because their parents were never married to begin with.

On one side, I think of my niece, whose father faded out of the picture when she was three years old and her parents divorced.  On the other side, I think of her daughter, my grandniece, whose parents were never married and who is growing up without a father in her life.  It’s hard not to think that the former may have helped to produce the latter.

Leslie Grimard, a researcher for The Heritage Foundation, points out that 60% of kids in Richmond, Virginia have no father in the home.  Whether their parents were divorced or never married at all, that is a lot of children growing up with only one parent and, in most cases, no regular male influence.  Nationally, Grimard reports, about one out of every four children lives with his or her mother only.

While some may view these statistics as a cause for condemnation of a social or moral breakdown, the real problem is that more than half of children of single mothers live in dire poverty.  Of the one trillion dollars we spend on welfare programs for low-income families with children, over three-quarters goes to families headed by single mothers.

Despite federal and state efforts to keep these families above water, children growing up without fathers have a high incidence of battling depression, abusing drugs and getting in trouble with the law at an early age, according to Grimard.

Grimard posits that the answer to these social ills is not throwing more money at the problem (which our broke government cannot afford in any event).  The answer is fathers.

“When fathers play an active role in the lives of their children, they make a tangible difference,” writes Grimard.  “Children whose fathers spent time with them doing day-to-day activities such as homework, eating dinner or playing sports earned better grades on average than peers who had less access to their fathers.”

Many single mothers wish that the fathers of their children would take an active role in their kids’ lives.  It is easy to criticize absentee fathers for what appears to be moral bankruptcy, but the fact remains that no one can force fathers to do right by their children.  Then there are those mothers who, regretting ever having become involved with the father of their children, believe that everyone is better off if he stays out of their lives.  These fathers may have problems with alcohol or drugs or may be physically or emotionally abusive.  I once worked with a woman who, wanting nothing to do with her daughter’s absent father, referred to her ex as “my sperm donor.”

But the problems engendered by fatherlessness persist.  The cycle of poor school performance, dropping out of school, committing crime, teen pregnancy and poverty seems like a generational curse that never ends.  I have to agree that fathers are the most direct way, and possibly the only way, to break this cycle.

It is sad that the single, impoverished mother has become a fixture in American society.  In his widely heralded book, The Working Poor, David Shipler pointed out a decade ago that this entire sector of society has become “invisible.”  The chambermaid who cleans your hotel room, the cashier at Wal-Mart and the young lady handing you your Big Mac and fries through the McDonald’s drive-through window are all likely to be single mothers (either divorced or never married) silently suffering from grinding poverty.  Part of this poverty is the product of one-income minimum wage families.  But there is also the poverty of spirit of children of these households who grow up without the influence of a father.

In fatherless families, boys often grow up without significant male role models.  As for the girls, the image of a man who is husband and father may be totally foreign to them.  Likely as not, their home life experience is shared by many of their schoolmates and neighborhood friends.

The picture is rather depressing, and I can only wonder whether my grandniece will one day perpetuate the cycle by making babies early and struggling along as a single mother.  Despite the reduction in divorce rates in recent decades, it is statistically likely that my great-grandniece or great-grandnephew will also grow up without a father.

I was lucky.  My parents have been married for nearly 61 years.  Not all of those years were happy.  As a teenager, I remember my parents having acrimonious shouting matches that lasted half the night, complete with the vilest kind of curses, accusations and threats.  My sisters and I were scared to death and horrified.  We thought we were witnessing our family being torn asunder before our very eyes.

When I was fifteen, my mother vowed to divorce my father if he failed to concede to her demands.  While I am sure that each of my parents had grounds for justification for their positions, I remember wishing that they’d just get divorced already and get it over with.  I was sick of the bickering, arguing and foul language.  Like the Biblical character Jonah pouting beneath a vine when things didn’t go his way, I was terribly disappointed when my father caved in and stayed.  It wasn’t the first time he justified his actions by saying of my mother “if I didn’t love her so much, I’d leave.”

But I think the real reason he stayed, which I couldn’t fully appreciate as a teenager, is because he loved his three children and knew what might happen if he left.

Thanks, Dad.

 

A Jew in Church

star cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom: “What does her father do?”

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

Mom: “Does her mother work?”

Me: “Yes, she pastors a church.”

Mom: “I mean for a living.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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