Things That Go Bump in the Night

home
Photo courtesy Google Maps (Street View)

I lived in the same house from the time I was seven years old until I was 35.  That is, except for a year and a half in high school when we were upstate (and even then we came “home” on weekends), four years away in college and three years away in law school.  I was a regular homing pigeon who found work in my hometown and always returned to the familiarity of my parents’ residence until I started a new job in New England and moved to a ratty apartment in Connecticut.

It’s been twenty years since I last turned into the driveway of the old home place, but I can still close my eyes, climb the front steps and mentally tour every room.  There’s the entryway that we called “the landing” and the seven steps up to where we did most of our living and the seven steps down to the family room, the spare bedroom, the laundry room and the steel-paneled door to the garage.  Even blindfolded, I could find the slatted door to the boiler room and the closet where we kept the vacuum cleaner and my mother’s mink coat and the sliding glass doors out to the deck and the little storage closet under the stairs that always smelled like mothballs and the alcove occupied by the rake and the spade and the lawn sprinkler.

My mother claims that she could return to the New York City neighborhood where she grew up and would still be able to navigate every nook and cranny for many blocks around her old apartment building, which still stands at the corner of Grand Avenue and West 181st Street.  She ran those streets with her girlfriends all through junior high and high school.  Some things, she says, you never forget.

For years, I’ve heard people say “it’s like riding a bicycle, it comes right back to you” to refer to something you haven’t done for a long time but mentally know like the back of your hand.  Does this apply to places as well as to actions?

By sharp contrast to my childhood and young adulthood, since my wife and I have been married we have moved around a bit.  We have hopscotched about this wonderful map of California and, a month ago, moved to our fourth residence.

I have long believed that we can get used to almost anything.  Whatever surroundings we find ourselves in, they soon take on the aura of the familiar.  The litmus test, however, is when you wake up in the middle of the night in a darkened room.  For a split second, you wonder where you are.  For just that moment, hanging in the interstices between sleep and wakefulness, I might be back in Massachusetts, out in the desert, in the north end of Fresno or even, depending on the depth of the dream from which I am just emerging, in my childhood bedroom on Rockland Parkway, one house from the corner of Alexander Avenue.

And when I haul myself out of bed and attempt to navigate my way to the bathroom, chances are good that I’ll bang my thigh or my hand against one of the pieces of furniture I encounter on my route.  I am improving in this regard; after more than four weeks here, I pretty much have the lay of the land down.  But not like the back of my hand, not like riding a bicycle (something, incidentally, that I never learned to do).  I still have to think about it for a moment, particularly when I’m not wearing my specs and I’m still clearing the cobwebs out of my brain.

Now that I’ve come close to reaching a comfortable level of familiarity, my wife decided to rearrange our bedroom today.  The new layout is much more functional and I love the way it looks.  But in the deepest recesses of the night, I know I will once again experience that slight moment of confusion before I remember just how this tune goes.

I know it’ll be a while until my surroundings become second nature to me and I am truly able to call the parsonage home.  Until then, don’t be scared of things that go bump in the night.

More than likely, it will just be me.

 

NaBloPoMo November 2013

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?

 

Postcard from Another Life

postcard

Oh boy, this is going to be a tough post to write.  ‘Tis a bitter pill, my bloggy friends.

Many of you know that I was laid off from my job at the end of September.  The end of a job is a little like a death in the family.  Our work is a large part of our identities, and when we lose it, we lose a part of ourselves.  In this case, the “family member” (employer) had been mortally ill (broke) for some time.  We all had a pretty good idea that the layoffs were a-comin’, although we tried not to talk about it while we hoped in our hearts that some miracle would make its appearance to save us.  Half of my staff took the axe in mid-August and I had my turn at the guillotine about six weeks later.

Like any death, knowing that it is just a matter of time does not make it any easier once the day finally arrives.  The period of mourning always begins with shock and disbelief, eventually sliding through the phases of acceptance and moving on.

And then there are the family and friends who seek to console you.  They are so well-meaning, and in the name of consolation, the platitudes fly like snowflakes in January.  The appropriate response is to smile wanly and express your appreciation while you wonder what the hell you’re going to do now.

It is easy to criticize this attitude as being entirely too dramatic.  Losing a job is more like a bad breakup than a death, you say.  Perhaps this is so.  Family members can never be replaced, but you can always find another job.  Except that most of my employees have been unable to do so.  When you live in this economy in a remote town in the middle of the desert with the nearest small city being a hundred miles away, there is not much work close at hand.  Working likely means commuting three hours per day or else relocating, i.e., selling your house (good luck), uprooting your children and moving away from the place where you grew up and the family who serve as your support network.  Unemployment, here we come.  And when that runs out, God only knows.  Maybe you can get a part-time job at minimum wage at the K-Mart or at Del Taco or the new dollar store that just opened at the west end of town.

We were among the lucky ones.  We had nothing holding us in the desert and we were able to kick over the traces and move in with family 600 miles away.

So you try to put it behind you.  You try to forget about the people and the places.  You can’t help looking back on the good times you had, but you try not to dwell on it.  Time to lick your wounds and check out the other fish in the sea.

We start the healing process by removing the numbers from our smart phones:  The lady who sells tortillas down by the freeway, the place that services your car, your doctor, your dentist, your landlord, the supermarket, the guy who fixes your air conditioning when it breaks down in July, the people who mow your lawn and the ones who deliver water.  You’ve moved to another part of the state and this is your chance to start over.  You never have to think about these people again.

Then it happens.  You get a post card in the mail.  And it’s like a message in a bottle, a reminder of the life you’ve left behind, a bad dream.

In this case, the post card was from my former boss.  One side featured a lovely photo of a sunset bearing the label “San Diego.”  Since we just came off of a holiday weekend, I suppose that the boss had a three or four day mini-vacation at the beach.

So thank you for thinking of me, boss.  You say you hope that we are relatively settled in up north.  You say you hope that we keep in touch.

Sigh.

How should I respond to this?  Should I ignore the gesture?  Should I write back, and if so, what should I say?  If I were to respond, I suppose my own post card would go something like this:

Dear Boss,

 I know this whole thing wasn’t your fault.  I know the layoff was a money-saving measure dictated by upper management and that you had no control over it.  But I also know that we made a 1,200+ mile round trip the week after my layoff because I was invited to interview for another management position at a different location.  And that you were one of the three on the interview panel.  And that you pretended that I was Joe Schmoe who you’d never met before even though I worked my butt off for you for the past three years.  And that the only reaction I could get from you was the barest hint of a nod when I stared directly into your eyes.  I know that you were only doing your job, doing what is expected of you.  After all, you have your own job to protect.  But I guess you and your cronies decided that you’d be better off getting rid of me for good.  I know this because I received a computer-generated form email informing me that I was not selected for the position.  Cold, really cold.  And now you send me a card to say that you hope we are settled in the place to which we were forced to move.  Not to be rude or anything, but I think you have a hell of a nerve.

Were you motivated by guilt?  Do you feel bad about what happened to me and to my employees?  Do you want us to like you anyway and say “hey, forgive and forget, let bygones be bygones?”  What’s that? I’m being unnecessarily cruel?  You’re just trying to be kind? I am sorry, but I think it’s a little late for that.  We have already removed all those numbers from our phones, including yours.  We have moved on, just as I know you would want us to.  So please do not contact us further.  We have a new life now and you are just a bad reminder of the harrowing escapades that you have put us through.  Oh, and by the way, we honestly wish you best of luck in all your future endeavors.

Sincerely,

Your former employee

 

On the Road: Stuck in the Zip Code Twilight Zone, Playing Double Dutch on the Freeway and Doing the Greasy

Southern California to Northern California.  Two (stuffed) cars are better than one.

From personal experience, the following is my advice on moving from one part of the state to another when said move involves packed-to-the-brim vehicles and many hundreds of miles of freeway driving:

  1. If clothes, furnishings and household utensils extend halfway up your rear window, you will be able to see only the roof of the little foreign car tailgating you for twenty miles or so.  How does that old saying go again?  If you’re not a hemorrhoid, get off my ass.
  2. When driving an overloaded vehicle, never play leapfrog with a yellow Penske van driven by a maniacal SOB who would just love to see you careen off the freeway into a ditch at 70 miles per hour.
  3. Consider investing in a bumper sticker bearing the logo: “I’ve just been laid off and I’m moving in with my mother-in-law.  Go ahead, make my day.”
  4. The right side view mirror is your friend, particularly if that end of your rear window is blocked by the upended legs of a chair or table and a pile of blankets and pillows.  When passing a vehicle on the interstate, it really is necessary to check said mirror before pulling back into the right hand lane.  Trust me on this one.
  5. Never, ever agree to follow anyone or to have anyone follow you for more than 500 miles.  Particularly if the anyone is your wife.

Having turned in the keys to our rental house on Thursday (my last day of work), we spent a night in a motel and hit the road at six o’clock Friday morning.  Both cars were packed to within an inch of their sorry automotive lives, including the trunk, the back seat, the floorboards and the passenger seat.  Just enough room for the driver remained.  Northward ho!

My wife followed me as we trekked across the desert from the Arizona border to Coachella, our first refueling stop.  We stopped on opposite sides of the same gas pump, with the idea that we’d fill one vehicle and then pass the nozzle over to fill the other one, all on the same credit card receipt.  This should be a snap, I thought, and we’ll be off in a jiffy.  What I forgot is that nothing ever goes smoothly when you’re traveling.

These days, most gas pumps in California require the purchaser to key in his or her billing zip code after swiping a credit card.  Having updated our records with the credit card company, I input our new zip code.  Incorrect.  Alrighty then, let’s try the zip code we just left an hour and a half ago.  Incorrect.  (Sigh.)  Let’s go back to the new zip code, keying it very carefully, one digit at a time.

DENIED, flashed the display.

What do you mean, “denied?”  It can’t be denied!  We have used this same credit card forever.  Well, maybe not forever, but at least since our credit card number was stolen the last time we moved.  It seems we had entered the Twilight Zone, a strange purgatory between zip codes where matter and anti-matter collide and you simply cease to exist.

Now what?  Fortunately, we had cash on us.  But I was stewing.  This sort of petty inconvenience gets me riled up way beyond anything remotely warranted.  And then I went inside the truck stop to use the rest room, only to find that every single stall in the men’s room was occupied.  All six of them.  What the hell?  Have I stumbled upon a pooping convention?  Or has every traveler on the I-10, in some cosmic coincidence, chosen this exact moment to take a dump?  I really, really wanted to say bad words.  Instead, I got back in the Mercury and roared over the San Gorgonio Pass on the way to our prearranged breakfast stop in Calimesa.

I had suggested stopping at Bob’s Big Boy, although I couldn’t remember exactly which exit to take.  “I think it’s County Line Road,” said my wife the previous night.  “Why don’t you look it up on your phone?”

Of course I didn’t look it up on my phone.  And of course County Line Road was not the correct exit.

What we needed was the exit before County Line Road.  My wife figured this out easily, but I, being thick in the brain, did not.  She zoomed ahead of me and exited at County Line Road while I followed her back onto the eastbound freeway to backtrack to our correct exit.

Now it was her turn to fume.  “Didn’t you see the huge sign?” she demanded.

“No,” I admitted sheepishly.

“Didn’t you hear me honking and honking?”

With the windows closed, the air conditioner blowing and Rod Stewart serenading me through my iPod?  Not a chance.

At least we lucked out with a fabulous breakfast.  Big Boy’s breakfast buffet was as good as I remembered it from back east, with bacon and sausage for my wife and oatmeal, fruit and home fried potatoes for me.

We agreed to gas up before hitting the freeway again.  Now, one would think that I could successfully follow another vehicle less than a mile to a filling station.  No such luck.  This is me we’re talking about, remember.  Mr. Thick.

Somehow, I didn’t see where my wife turned off, and then missed the gas station as I drove right by it.  After driving a couple of miles down the road, I realized that I must have made a mistake somewhere along the way.  I pulled into Del Taco and checked my phone.  Sure enough, she had texted me.  “You missed the gas station.”

“Going back now,” I responded, backtracking and, miraculously, noticing the big Arco sign this time around.

“Clearly, this is not working!” my wife exclaimed as I pulled up to the pumps.  She was spitting mad.

And indeed, clearly it was not.  As the saying goes:  “Do not lead, as I may not follow.  Do not follow, as I may not lead.  Just walk beside me and be my friend.”  If you can figure out how this applies to doing the double dutch down the freeway, by all means let me know.

I actually managed to successfully follow my wife about 90 miles down the 210 through Pasadena and onto the I-5, stopping only once to switch cars when my leg was cramping so badly that I could barely lift it to the brake pedal.  You should know that the I-5 interchange involves six lanes of traffic and the Highway 14 split.  So I promptly lost sight of my wife again.  And caught up with her just as she was exiting at Newhall.  Now, I had a feeling she might stop at Newhall, as we have stopped there many times before and it is one of the last decent stopping places before heading over the Grapevine.  The only problem was that I didn’t actually see my wife get off the freeway and, fortunately for me, just caught a glimpse of her car at the very last second that I could turn the wheel without missing the exit entirely.

From Newhall, we chugged over the ‘vine and into our regular overnight rest stop in Buttonwillow, Kern County.  “See if you can get a room in the front,” my wife asked as I prepared to go in and register.  “Hurry!” she added, as she saw another guest coming from behind — another guest who might take the last room in the front.  I rushed over to the door and, pulling it open, realized that I had just entered the laundry area.  The other door, behind me, was the door to the registration area, that is, the area where the other guest was busily paying for her room at the counter.  “Face it,” I thought, “I can’t do anything right.”  I feel a deep, abiding kinship with Charlie Brown.  (Although, so far, no one has called me a blockhead.  Wishy-washy, maybe.)

The importance of renting a motel room in the front of the property is twofold:  First, you want to avoid having to drag your suitcases down an exterior corridor or over the grassy area by the pool.  Second, when you are traveling with two loaded-down cars, it is helpful to be able to see them directly outside your window so that when some miscreant breaks into them in the middle of the night, at least you can dial 911 and yell “help, help, oh help” while the thief makes off with all your possessions.  We didn’t really need all that old stuff anyway, now did we?

When the woman who hurried in front of me to the registration desk finally finished, I shuffled up to the clerk to learn that there was exactly one room left unrented in the front of the property.  But it was a smoking room (choke, gag).  I texted my wife to see whether she wanted the smoking room.  “Sure,” came back the reply.

Suffice it to say that we did indeed choke and gag for most of the night.  We borrowed some air freshener from the front desk, but it didn’t really help very much.  The smoke just seeps into your lungs, your hair and your clothes.  And although no one broke into our cars, we both wished we had taken a room in the back and bump-bump-bumped the suitcases over the lawn by the pool (particularly when the air conditioning quit on us about midnight).

Then came the matter of dinner.  We saw a barbecue joint, an Indian restaurant that received poor reviews online, a plethora of fast food establishments and Denny’s.  We settled for Denny’s, having visited this particular location on many occasions and having been impressed by their excellent service.  For road food, Denny’s is actually fairly dependable.

Except not this time.  My wife ordered bacon and toast.  Her toast was actually cold.  “Now, how can you mess up toast?” you may ask.  Leave it to Denny’s, they managed.  My wife is generally reluctant to send any dish back to the kitchen, no matter how bad it is.  After all, we’ve read the horror stories about how such dishes are, shall we say “adulterated,” before being returned to the table.  But this time, the toast was so inedible that my wife did send it back.  Did they prepare her a new order of toast?  Heck, no!  They simply warmed it up and brought it back out.

As for her bacon, she had ordered it done crispy.  Instead it came out done greasy.  Greasy and inedible.

So much for depending on Denny’s (although I must say that my veggie burger and six little pieces of broccoli were excellent).

In the morning, we headed into the home stretch, driving more than two hours down the road before stopping for breakfast at a truck stop in Santa Nella, Merced County.  We stopped here for dinner recently and were singularly unimpressed.  For the sake of convenience, however, we decided to give their breakfast a chance.  Their breakfast buffet was actually not bad at all.

As it was late in the morning when we arrived, the staff was just starting to put out the salad bar for lunch.  We asked whether salad was included with the breakfast buffet and were told no, only the soup was included.  Say what?  Perhaps the waitress didn’t know what she was talking about.  After all, we heard her telling diners at a nearby table that she had worked at this truck stop for 41 years.  “It’s time for her to retire,” I told my wife.  And I believe she did just that.  Once she took our order and wrote up a sales slip for two buffets, we never saw her again.  We had to shanghai other staff members to refill our beverages.

If you follow this blog, you may recognize this truck stop as the place where I recently engaged in a Spanglish conversation with the nice (impatient) janitor lady through the stall door.  This time, there was no janitor in evidence, but the only stall available (unlike Coachella, at least there was one) had a broken lock.  I am pleased to report that only two gentlemen walked in on me while I was taking a crap.  The older one seemed slightly embarrassed and reached in to close the stall door behind him.  The younger guy just seemed pissed off.  Hey, this is not exactly my cup of tea either, young dude.  Do you think I enjoy showing off my fat butt to total strangers at a truck stop on the I-5?

We arrived safe and sound in our new home in northern California, just in time to gather with family and friends to celebrate my niece’s seventeenth birthday.  It only took us a day and a half to get both cars completely unloaded, although the house is still a mess of half-empty boxes and clothes strewn every which way.  But we were both very glad to finally get off the road.

For a few days, anyway.  Tuesday we head back to southern California.  Sometimes we feel like Sisyphus, rolling the boulder up and down the I-5.

 

How to Eat a Grapefruit with a Plastic Fork: A Sukkot Story

This is a story about Sukkot.

If you are not familiar with this weeklong Jewish holiday (often translated into English as Feast of Tabernacles or Feast of Booths), you have a lot of company.  Although Sukkot is a major holiday and one of our shalosh regolim (three festivals), along with Passover and Shavuot (Feast of Weeks), even many Jews are unfamiliar with it.

The holiday has its origins in the Biblical command “on the fifteenth day of this seventh month is the festival of booths, seven days for the Lord.”  Leviticus 23:24

The very sound of the word “booths” makes me laugh.  The image that comes to my mind is that of a toll both on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey.  Actually, the booths referred to in Leviticus were temporary shelters that were hastily erected using leaves, branches and whatever natural material was at hand while the Jews wandered through the desert for forty years.

Sukkot is a fall festival that occurs at the time of the harvest.  Hence, it is sometimes referred to as the Festival of Ingathering.  It makes one wonder whether makeshift dwellings might have been erected in the fields at the peak of the harvest when it may have been too far for the hands to travel between their homes and the fields daily.

These days, the sukkah or booth is often erected of bamboo poles or 2x4s, with sod, branches and leaves used for a loose covering.  It is traditional to eat all one’s meals in the sukkah for a week, and the Orthodox make it large enough so that they can sleep in it and watch the stars through the spaces in the thatched roof.  Kids love this form of camping out in the backyard.

Aside from the sukkah itself, the other major tradition of this festival is the waving of the lulav and etrog (palm fronds and citron).  As harvest and fertility symbols, they remind us nonfarming city dweller types of the enormous bounty with which we have been blessed by God.

When I lived in areas where synagogues were available, I usually made an effort to go to worship and eat a meal in the sukkah at least once during the holiday.  In the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, however, it is easy to forget about this colorful holiday entirely.  I have been reading online that many assimilated Jews have never even heard of it.  Kind of sad, really.

I recall a rabbi who once related to the congregation in my presence that many Orthodox Jews in Israel decorate their sukkot with strings of colored Christmas lights.  Seems like a bit of an irony there.  Most of the sukkot I have seen in the United States have been decorated with pine cones, fruit and pictures drawn by children.

I am about the most unhandy person you can imagine, and there is exactly zero chance of me ever attempting to construct my own sukkah.  Nevertheless, our living situation this week has unintentionally helped me to feel a connection to the wandering Jews of old.

We are in the process of moving and, with three days left in our current residence, the place is rather empty.  Due to the expense of moving furniture and the fact that we are moving in to my mother-in-law’s fully furnished home, we have sold or donated just about everything.  The TV went a week ago; over the weekend, we sold the living room set, the kitchen set, the washer and the dryer.  All that remains to find homes are the refrigerator and our bed, which will be picked up by their new owners on Wednesday night and Thursday, respectively.

So my wife and I have been sitting in canvas camp chairs in our big empty living room the past few nights.  Instead of television, we have the music we’ve downloaded onto our smart phones.  We moved our folding table into the living room to serve as a staging area for packing (see photo); one edge remains bare so that we can pull up folding chairs and eat.  As for eating, well, we are doing our best to use up all of our refrigerated and frozen food.  We are almost there.  Needless to say, this can result in some rather interesting and humorous meals.  No surprise that a pizza was ordered today.

staging area

Aside from food itself, the question remains as to what to use for utensils with which to eat said food.  The majority of our dishes, pans and flatware have served us for entirely too many years and will not be traveling north with us.  All of our forks and spoons were discarded.

Last night, I awoke at about 2 AM with my stomach rumbling and complaining that the needle was on Empty.  I hadn’t eaten much in the way of dinner.  I hauled myself out of bed, headed for the kitchen and began rummaging among the dribs and drabs of our remaining food.  In the fruit bin, I found the last of our citrus supply, one lonely grapefruit.  But it was a fat, juicy grapefruit.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I cut my grapefruit in half and then scoop out the sections with a spoon.  The problem is you have to have a spoon.  The only utensil available was a plastic fork.  How on earth would I eat a grapefruit with a plastic fork?

Well, I am living proof that it can be done.  By using the plastic tines to prise out as much of the flesh as possible from each section, it then becomes possible to use one’s fingers to grab onto the pulpy parts and pull the remainder of the section of the grapefruit half.  This is a bit of a time-consuming process, particularly if you intend to eat the entire grapefruit.  On a paper plate while seated on a folding chair at two in the morning.

Although I haven’t been able to attend a Sukkot service or sit in a sukkah to eat a meal this year, I believe I’ve gotten a taste of what it’s like to camp out in a temporary dwelling for a few days.  And if I am not able to wave the lulav or look up at the stars through my thatched roof this time, I just have to step outside to watch the palms up and down the street rustling in the breeze and to observe the canopy of stars that dots the sky every night out here in the middle of the desert.

 

On Seeking Forgiveness in a Mexican Restaurant

Earlier this week, friends of ours drove out from Los Angeles to provide new homes for our big screen TV and our antique china cabinet.  We are moving 641 miles north at the end of this week and “everything must go.”

I thought it was cool when our friends texted my wife a photo of the china cabinet in its new location in their house.  It’s a little easier to say goodbye to an old friend when you have a visual of it settled comfortably into its new digs.

We took our friends to dinner during their overnight visit, which also afforded us an opportunity to say goodbye to our favorite little Mexican restaurant here in town.  Husband, who pastors a church in the South Bay, sat across from me as we tucked into our burritos, tacos and chile rellenos.  Wife began gushing over the delicious Rosh Hashannah dinner that her beloved prepared a few weeks ago, complete with all the traditional dishes and the traditional blessings.  This was a bit awkward, as I’ve been a practicing Jew for more than half a century, and I am not familiar with any traditional Rosh Hashannah dishes other than tizmmes and apples dipped in honey.  I also don’t know of any traditional Rosh Hashannah blessings beyond “l’shannah tovah” and “may you be recorded in the Book of Life.”  The blessing to which she referred had something to do with salvation, she told me.  Salvation?  Hmm, primarily a Christian concept, I responded.  She reminded me of the salvation that occurred when we were freed from slavery at the hands of the Egyptians.  True, I said, although I don’t normally think of the Exodus in terms of “salvation.”

I have never associated the concept of salvation with Rosh Hashannah, but perhaps that is a way of establishing a connection that would make our holiday more relevant to Christians.  To me, the concept of salvation is inextricably entwined with Jesus, who, let’s face it, sought to “save” the people from many of the very things that we Jews hold dear.

What really took me aback, however, was when husband brought up Yom Kippur.  “Did you afflict your soul?” he asked.

Why, yes, I did, I answered.  I suspect his question was asked with sincerity, although (at least to me) it came off as tinged with sarcasm at the time.  I have to assume that, as he is a pastor, he was not attempting to belittle my beliefs.  But if he was trying to make me think, it worked.

This was one of only a handful of times that my rear end was not planted firmly in a seat in synagogue for most of the day on Yom Kippur.  Being our holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur is a time when I generally find my way into shul regardless of where my wanderings take me.  Out here in the desert, however, it’s not so easy.  Two years ago, we trekked to makeshift services in a hotel ballroom 2½ hours away in the Phoenix area.  Last year, we attended Rosh Hashannah services in San Luis Obispo on the central coast and Yom Kippur services in Palm Springs.  With no Jews to speak of in our little desert oasis, our choices consist of either traveling or making do.  This year, there was no way for me to get out of work early enough to travel, eat before the fast and still make Kol Nidre services.  So the “make do” option was the order of the day.

This meant that I sat on the sofa in our living room (our beautiful red sofa, now sold… did I mention that I hate moving?) with my mahzor and, wearing my frayed purple kippa, spending hours chanting the Yom Kippur service.  Just like in shul, I stood for as much of the Shmonah Esrei (silent devotion) as my back and knees would allow.  The remainder of the service I chanted aloud, alternating between the Hebrew and the English, doing my best to correctly pronounce the bits that are in ancient Aramaic.  My wife sat in the chair opposite me as I droned on for hours in a language that means nothing to her.  God bless her for being so patient with me.

My favorite part of the Yom Kippur service has long been the reading of the Biblical book of Jonah, which we do late in the afternoon.  Before we reach that point, however, we recite the vidui, the ancient formula for the confession of sins, over and over during various parts of the service.  Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu (we have been guilty, we have betrayed, we have stolen), and on and on goes the list of our transgressions.  Whether I recite this in the Hebrew or the English, it makes me feel dirty.  Positively filthy with sin.  It’s like a physical thing; I imagine sin covering me with a sticky stink as if I had just stumbled out of a miasmic swamp.

And indeed, I have.  The miasmic swamp is our day-to-day lives in which we are more concerned about ourselves than about others, in which we “do what we have to do” to get ahead, crushing the spirits of those upon whose backs we tread without a thought.  The vidui ends with “we have gone astray, we have led others astray,” as poignant an indictment of our misdeeds as one could imagine.  The fact that we have debased ourselves to every kind of sin should be bad enough.  But let us not forget that every action in which we engage, every word that we speak, consciously or unconsciously influences others.  Someone, sooner or later, is going to follow our example.  Because that’s what we, as human beings, do.

The Avinu Malkeinu (“our father, our king”) is the other prayer that I have trouble with.  This lengthy list of our personal failings goes on for two pages of printed text and never ceases to get me choked up with emotion.  For the sin which we have committed in spurning parents and teachers.  (My parents are about to celebrate their eightieth birthday.  How much longer are they going to be around?  Why don’t I give them more attention?)  For the sin which we have committed in speaking guile.  (I am not known for holding my tongue, or my keyboard for that matter.  When am I going to learn to speak more kindly, to recognize my employees for the little miracles they create every day, to tell my wife how much I love her more often?)  For the sin which we have committed in eating and drinking.  (I can’t even begin to enumerate my sins on this score.  But since Yom Kippur I have (mostly) kept my resolution to eat a more healthy diet, so perhaps there is hope for me yet.)

The final verse of Avinu Malkeinu is sung in unison by the congregation, a moving plea to the Almighty to forgive our human frailities and to give us another chance to be the better people we are capable of being rather than executing the severe decree that we so justly deserve.  I love the tune of this particular hymn, but I can’t get to the end of it without my voice cracking.  I am overcome with emotion every time.

So I think I was telling our friends the truth when I answered that yes, I did afflict my soul on Yom Kippur.  I only wish I had taken time to go into the details of the vidui and the Avinu Malkeinu so that my response didn’t sound so facile.

Yom Kippur may seem like an anachronism to some, but I am one of those who take its message personally.  Which, of course, is what Yom Kippur is all about.  But suffice it to say that it is difficult to explain this adequately in a Mexican restaurant over chile rellenos.  And I can’t begin to fathom how I might translate this message into terms that would be meaningful to a committed Christian.