Thursday, October 23, 2008

A club that would have me as a member

I've never been one to join any kind of organized group; it's something totally at odds with my solitary nature. Oh, believe me -- I've tried over the years. As a kid and teen, I made half-hearted attempts to please -- or more accurately, shut up -- my parents, who were convinced that the kids at Hebrew school were a good group to hang with, solely by virtue of the fact that they were Jewish and all my friends in the neighborhood were not. Since it was their choice to buy a house on a well-populated block with perhaps a grand total of five (if even that) Jewish families, I felt no compelling reason to extend my relationships beyond those that I had established. In addition, my mother loved to tell -- and continues to tell -- anyone within earshot how she grew up thinking everyone was either Catholic or Jewish, and how the Favuzzis lived on one side of her house and the Violas on the other, and how when my brother openly and innocently asked why a certain man doing some work in our then-apartment was brown (the same apartment from which we would later move when the neighborhood became a tad too dark-complected for her comfort) how she explained that God made people different colors, and that we were all the same inside, or something to that effect.

And then she concludes that particular story -- a story she can’t help but manage to relate within minutes of sighting any black person who crosses her threshold for the first time (which is a frequent occurrence these days since she requires 24/7 assistance) -- with the man responding, “Ma’am, if mo’ peoples was like you, this world would be a sho’ good place!”

Yes, complete with Stepin Fetchit enunciation and all. To their faces. To their -- need I reiterate -- clearly black faces. Because she’s a great liberal, you see, and so comfortable with everyone in the world that she must draw attention to the given person’s “otherness” in order to prove just that. Which, of course, is clearly evidence to the contrary, but go try telling her.

Everyone carries at least some sort of prejudice, to one degree or another, toward one or more groups of people, and maybe the sooner one can acknowledge that in oneself, the better. Maybe then we can perhaps get on with the business of life, without having to make a show of things. We can simply be. But that sort of reasoning is for more or less normal-thinking people, and she's never been one of those -- although she's managed to fool a whole lot of people along the way.

But I digress. I always do.

So I suppose that my reluctance to be part of an organized group was, at least in part, due to being forced into one in which I had no particular interest. It was enough being born into one, as we all are in a way; I just felt no need for redundancy. The pattern continued throughout my growing-up years, through high school, college and even into the working world. It was also forged by my utter lack of privacy growing up, and even as a young adult. I was never afforded the right to my own thoughts, beliefs or opinions. My mother always managed to elbow her way into my relationships, even among people with whom -- and for whom -- I worked. Fight as I might against my parents, particularly my mother, who time and again made it clear that I was to live life at she saw fit -- which was not to live at all -- I found it far easier to be alone rather than to be what others wanted me to be. At the same time, pretty much anything I might have had interest in was belittled and discouraged, so being alone was the best I could do.

Sadly, it's still all I can do. I was not permitted to go away to college (it’s a wonder I earned a degree at all), or move out of the house. I was so beaten down, that I was paralyzed by fear of success perhaps even more than the fear of failure. If I failed, it would be bad enough, but if I succeeded, I would be surely be reminded of how much better I must imagine I was, of how "some people don’t know how to walk or talk,” as my mother loved (and still loves) to say.

Although a whole lot has happened between then and now (including an “escape” halfway across the country at the ripe old age of 26, a story I will save for another day), I don’t think I will ever feel anything but “less than.” I have had some professional success, I suppose, however limited by fears and insecurities no amount of therapy or medication will ever entirely alleviate, and I’m married to a wonderful, ambitious and understanding man. (He can be a dick at times, but who isn't every once in a while?) We have two children, a beautiful house (even had a beach house at one point), travel now and then, and with this lifestyle have thus far been afforded an existence that has indulged -- or perhaps more accurately, has fortuitously perpetuated -- my more or less self-imposed isolation.

But there are a couple of things I’ve done recently which are surprising for me, and maybe even a step toward…I don’t know…somethingness, rather than my discomforting comfort zone of nothingness. The first is that I’ve joined a book club. It requires reading -- for me, the easy part -- but more importantly, it requires interaction with others, maybe even the possibility that I have something of value to contribute.

And I started this blog. One could argue that it’s a solitary pursuit, not requiring any kind of collaboration, and that’s true. However, writing this is the most open and out there I’ve ever dared venture, and I still don’t know how far I will feel safely able to run with it. The fact that I’ve written about my mother is one thing. She may be alive, but holds no particular power over me anymore. I now know who and what she is, and have no more to fear from her than from an empty suit of armor. But there are others in my life, every bit as much a part of my story as she, only with more time remaining and infinitely greater things to contend with. I respect and understand that.

But this is my life, my story, and for the first time in 48 years – with surely at least half my life behind me – I’m claiming ownership.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Confectionery Victims of the Shoah

Three summers ago, the very weekend after school let out, our family went on a trip to Washington, DC along with another family with whom we're close friends. Our children are the same ages and respective genders (we actually met through our daughters, who attended the same camp the summer before they entered kindergarten), live in the same town, share similar senses of humor, and at least three out of the four adults among us grew up in decidedly insane families.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that apples don't fall very far from their proverbial trees, and in this case, the apple in question was my son, then seven.

I had never been to DC before, and neither had our children. My husband had been there many years before, and I'm pretty sure our friends had as well, with the exception of their kids. In any case, we were all very excited. So many historic sights to see, so many museums to visit! And it was our son, Sam, who had suggested this journey. He was (and still is) very interested in American history and the workings of our government. His suggestion was met with much excitement by all of us, who had wanted to go there for the longest time, finally able to take advantage of the fact that the ages of our children -- seven and 10 -- were perfect for such a trip.

We left at dawn, and with my husband's maniacal driving skills arrived at the Mandarin Oriental in 2 hours, 50 minutes. (We later learned that he had finally been caught speeding -- a mere 12 miles over the limit -- inside the city itself, captured by a pole-mounted camera. When the photo and summons arrived in the mail a couple of weeks later, he couldn't have been more proud.)

We met up for lunch at the McDonald's inside the Air & Space Museum, followed by a self-guided tour of the place and, for the kids, rides in a flight simulator -- yes, after a McDonald's lunch -- which resulted in Sam having to press the STOP button, thereby simulating an eject maneuver. We toured the U.S. Mint at the Department of the Treasury, during which all four kids somehow became convinced that they would be given “free money” as a departing souvenir, courtesy of President George Dubya himself. Needless to say, they left somewhat disappointed.

We were there for three days, visiting various national monuments, the usual museums, and even the not so usual – like the International Spy Museum, which we really enjoyed. We went to dinner in Georgetown one evening, and saw Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was assassinated. I was overcome by the sudden urge to re-enact that old SNL skit in which a visibly drunk and obnoxious Abraham Lincoln heckles the actors on stage, thereby resulting in his being shot by a fed-up audience member (none other than John Wilkes Booth), but actually managed to control myself.

But it was at the final museum, one which we had thought long and hard about visiting, where genetic wiring sparked loose. It was the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, and children aside, I have long had my own misgivings not only about going there, but have never quite understood why such a place exists in the U.S. to begin with. If anything, the establishment of such an institution belongs in its country of origin or, at the very least, on its particular continent. Also, being the daughter of a man whose parents and brother perished in concentration camps was enough history for me. But I had heard and read many interesting things about it, and thought that perhaps our children would benefit from it and hopefully not come away traumatized.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried about the latter.

I was fine (as were my husband and children) for the duration of the visit, but it was the very last part of the tour that got to me. It was called, Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story, and was specifically designed to present the holocaust in a way that children could understand and relate to it. Sam, however, was his usual, happy-go-lucky comedic self, and it became clear that the whole point of this visit was lost on him. He pretended to march along with the people shown in archival footage, shouted "Hey! Where are all those Jews going?" and the sight of a bench marked “Jews Only” inspired him to sit down and animatedly point his thumbs backward toward himself.

I found myself tearing up during this last part, in spite of Sam’s reaction, or maybe partly because of it.

Luckily, this was the final exhibit, and I was more than ready to leave. As we walked out into a large, open space, I mentioned to my husband something I had actually mused about with someone else prior to embarking on this trip: “I can’t imagine this place has any kind of gift shop; I mean, what in the world would they sell there?” But there was a gift shop of sorts, a kiosk selling a few items, mainly books, videos, and patches depicting the flags of the allied forces.

Sam ran up to the kiosk, and asked the woman standing behind the counter a question she probably hadn’t expected, but really not all that unusual considering it was coming from a child. “Got any chocolate?” he asked. “No, I’m sorry, we don’t have any chocolate,” the woman answered.

But that wasn’t exactly what Sam was after. “No chocolate?” he continued, with a serious look on his face. “I thought maybe you had some chocolate Jews; you know, Jews made from chocolate.”

The woman fell silent, not knowing how to respond to that – I mean, how could she? – and the awkwardness of the situation hung in the air between us. I should mention that our son doesn’t “look” particularly or identifiably Jewish, which I quickly realized – or imagined, anyway – made the situation that much more infused with exactly the kind of unfavorable sentiment that eventually led to the creation of such a museum in the first place.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered to her, as I pulled Sam away from the counter. “Clearly, this entire experience was lost on him. And by the way,” I added, hoping to further diffuse the tension, “he’s Jewish.”

The woman smiled weakly, as did I. Needless to say, it was definitely a good time to make our exit.

Looking back, and even shortly thereafter, I recognized that Sam was not only being typically Sam, but being linked on a cellular level with people of similar humor, it really wasn’t all that surprising that the chocolate Jews incident took place. Unbeknownst to him, as well as my husband and daughter, I had joked about the idea of a Holocaust Museum Gift Shop with my brother a few weeks earlier, when discussing our then-upcoming travel plans.

“What could they possibly sell there?” I laughed, to which my brother replied, "Maybe an incense burner in the shape of a crematorium!”

I rest my case.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Wake me up in May

After getting the kids off to school, I dragged my sorry ass out for a Starbucks quad-shot latte, a loaf of bread, and a pumpkin. With Halloween just around the corner, the kids have been asking for a pumpkin, and the supermarket had a load of them -- big ones, too -- at $5.99 each, so I figured what the hey.

My son's Boy Scout troup (he's a Webelo II) had its popcorn sale on Saturday, and last night, while everyone was downstairs watching "Serial Mom," I decided to lay back in bed with a handful of caramel corn (with pecans and cashews), and follow it with a shot of M&Ms.

It turned out not to have been a great idea, because I spent the night pretty much awake, which is unusual for me by this time of year.

It's an established fact that I am not the hale and hearty outdoorsy type. That said, I do have a favorite season, and it isn't fall. It sure as hell isn't winter, or even spring. Summer is my season, and I wish it could last forever. I love the heat (but am thankful for central AC; I mean, I'm not entirely irrational), and my energy during the months of May, June, July and especially August is boundless. Come the first whispers of chill autumn air, and it's pretty much over for me. I can sleep 20 out of 24.

Saturday night, for example, I fell asleep at around 9:30 pm, and was woken up at 8:30 am by my son -- who needed to be at Sunday school at 9. I dressed quickly, gave him breakfast, and was out the door by 8:50. I positively struggled to make it to noon, when I picked him up and brought him home. I helped my husband (he's a den leader) gather materials for a solar system mobile for the Scout meeting Wednesday night, helped my daughter study her Italian, took the dog out, refilled the bird feeder...and fell into bed again at around 2, promptly falling asleep until 5. And if not for that ill-conceived bedtime snack of caramel corn and M&Ms, I would have fallen into yet another deep slumber until 5:30 this morning, when my husband's alarm goes off (mine goes off a half-hour later, at 6).

I would go back to bed this very minute, but the housekeeper is upstairs right now changing sheets and cleaning, and this latte is doing what it's supposed to do, so I guess I'd better find something with which to occupy myself. There are a bunch of magazines I haven't gotten to yet -- Wired, Make, Popular Science and Doctor Who -- and I suppose this is as good a day as any to curl up on the sofa and read. I'm even thinking of throwing a couple of logs in the fireplace; it's just that kind of grey, raw day. It's the kind of day that makes me think of Wuthering Heights, molasses cookies, plaid skirts, flannel jammies and my absolute favorite Doctor Who episode ever, "Blink."

Suddenly, fall doesn't seem quite so hopeless.

It must be the caffeine talking.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

My brother the performance artist

While reading another blogger's posts a day or so ago -- Amanda's wonderful "No one should see this" -- I came upon a post and a number of comments relating to it which said, both in essence and literally, "Only in Vancouver".

Being a New Yorker, my competitive genes immediately became activated, and I told a story that most New Yorkers would respond to as being something that could only happen in New York. Clearly, that isn't true (as it has happened in Vancouver, and is likely an everyday occurance in just about every city, town and village in mainland China), but even so, it is a story that would most definitely happen to my brother, and indeed, it did.

My brother is almost three years older than me, single, owns his own, very beautiful apartment in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan, and has worked in private banking for many, many years. He can eat anyone under the table (figuratively, and maybe even literally, although I won't go there, girl!), but his gustatory habits are easily counteracted by consistent exercise. He's in great shape. I, on the other hand, used to be but am no more, but that is another story.

One day, he was standing on a station platform -- I'm pretty sure it was W. 4th Street -- when this all-too-familiar feeling, accompanied by internal but audible rumbling, and then sheer panic, occurs. Recalling that there is a workers platform off the passenger one, inside the tunnel, littered with all sorts of debris (including empty paint cans), he hurries to the end of the platform, down the steps, along the track for a few feet, then climbs the stairs to the other platform. He pulls down his pants rapidly, and squats over an open paint can. At that point, a subway slowly rumbles past, slowing down for its destination, or perhaps an upcoming turn in the tunnel. He can see the faces of the passengers quite clearly, and smiles apologetically. At that very moment, he has become -- albeit unknowingly, or more accurately, involuntarily -- a performance artist.

Appropriately enough, this happened in the 80s, when performance art was perhaps at its zenith.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Naked

I signed up for a blogspot account sometime during the summer of 2006. I never posted.

This past August, I revisited and retitled my blogless blog...and never posted.

So here I am again. This time is a little different, though. Rather than hiding behind anonymity, which proved particularly effective -- doubly so, in fact, since on top of that I never posted -- I now stand before you naked. Literally, that wouldn't be a pretty sight these days (but one hell of an appetite supressor), but since I mean it figuratively, we both can manage to live with that image. What I mean is, I am actually posting under my own, actual name. And for me, that's naked enough.

Like most people, I don't know where to begin. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, first in what is now a "gentrified" neighborhood (Prospect Heights, across from The Brooklyn Museum), but that only lasted until I was six years old. While the so-called "white flight" of the 1960s took most upwardly-mobile people to the suburbs of Long Island and Westchester, my family ended up in southern Brooklyn, far from the New York City skyline we had been able to glimpse from the corner of Eastern Parkway and Washington Avenue. The reason for this was plain: We were anything but upwardly mobile, at least not in the sense that most people associate with the term. My parents bought a house -- with subway tracks behind it and a bus route in front of it -- a practical move in more than one way. We didn't have a car, and would never have a car. Neither one of my parents even knew how to drive. My father was an immigrant who worked cutting sheet metal in a factory in Greenpoint. He took trains into Manhattan, and another one back into Brooklyn, since Greenpoint was on another line, easily accessible by car, but a long and arduous journey by subway. But he never complained. My mother, on the other hand, was the daughter of a New York City cabbie, cigar in his mouth, tweed cap on his head, driving gloves on his hands, who sat behind the wheel of the most immaculately beautiful Checker cab imaginable. For years I figured that her reluctance to drive was because she was accustomed to being squired around by her father, but only recently -- in the past three or so years -- have I realized that this was yet one more thing she never bothered trying to accomplish, because one little mishap would have possibly uncovered her all-too-human potential for fallibility. But that is another story. And not an unimportant one.

Still, this marked my descent into the mouth of madness, as southern Brooklyn isn't at all like the Brooklyn glorified by hipsters, yuppies, realtors and bloggers. There are different Brooklyns, and the one I eventually ended up in wasn't one of bookstores and coffeehouses and chic boutiques; it was, and still is, an open-air mental institution. People don't age gracefully there; they ferment. They mutter to themselves, dragging or pushing well-worn shopping carts -- not of the grocery store variety, but the kind most Americans have never even seen -- living out their life sentences, rotting from the outside in. It's an existence that corrodes you, and I couldn't wait to escape.

While I dreamed of my eventual escape, a sign was revealed before me, and it gave me hope. It read, "Coming Soon: 7-11" and with that, I almost felt like a real American.