Friday, August 31, 2007

Party Like a Waitress

So, I'm thinking Shabbat will be relaxing, afford me an opportunity to sleep, to rest, to catch up with people, enjoy a beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat and the like...right? Wrong.

No, now I'm a waitress!

This is Chana's life, you understand, and this is how events work out. Hence my being a waitress on my very first Shabbat back at Stern, Orientation Shabbat, no less, at which there are at least 350 people (only to be outdone next week by the TAC/ SOY Shabbat with God knows how many. We can't even fit them all in Koch.)

So, what does it mean to be a waitress at Stern?

It means:
  • Showing up at 1:00 on Friday to set tables/ prepare salads/ refrigerate food, etc
  • Learning very interesting things about how the food is prepared
  • Meeting new people (if it's your first time, which it isn't for me), the majority of them French
  • Not having to pay for Shabbat/ being paid for your time ($70 if you're on work-study, $35 if you're not; the rest is put on your caf card)
  • Having lots of fun assuming that you're waitressing alongside friends (which I am)
  • Getting to eat cupcakes when nobody else can (because there are a couple left, which means you can't serve them, but you're not just going to throw them out, are you?)
  • Throwing out incredible amounts of food (this is really sad, but there's a law that you can't serve it once it's already been out on the table. And you can't donate it because of that, as well.)
  • Having to appear posthaste in front of a group of demanding people who are annoyed that their food is taking so long (often, this is not our fault)
  • Or somehow being given some awesome table of really sweet people who completely get that we get to them as fast as we can
  • Having to come early to every meal in order to set up (you can't daven at shul; you have to do so on your own) and stay till the very end (in order to clean up)
  • Having to wake up early on Shabbat morning (some people don't like to do this; I'd do it anyway)
  • Having a party

Anyway, it's going to be good fun. What I like best about being a waitress is that I get to move around as opposed to having to stay stationed at one solitary table and stare about dismally. Not that you have to do that, either, but it's quite difficult to get anywhere on these crowded Shabbatonim unless you're carrying food, in which case all make way for you. I get to see all the new faces and new people and go into my shpiel (it's invariably, "Hey, I'm Chana; what's your name? Do you know what you're majoring in yet or are you undecided? Oh, undecided, that's fine/ Oh, humanities and arts; I love those too/ Oh, science and math; you're aeons ahead of me!/ How'd you choose to come to Stern? Oh wait, they're calling me, I'll get back to you later!") then dashing off to whomever is signaling me, then returning and so on and so forth. It's basically all a dance. Waitressing is just that, an elaborate dance. You also have to dance through the tables (it takes good form and practice.) I enjoy all of this.

Word to the wise, ask questions after Rabbi Kanarfogel's speech on Orientation Shabbat and he remembers you. I did, and he remembered me during our recent encounter. So if there is some reason you need to make an impression on Rabbi Kanarfogel, you can do it this way. The deal is that most people are too scared and shy to talk (not my problem, alas) and so when a freshman does speak up it's very exciting.

*sings* I'm a waitress, I'm a waitress, I'm a waitress!

Party time!

The Meaning of Justice

I was reading a book this week that prompted the following thoughts to occur to me.

I was wondering about our legal system. What is it that we are after; justice, which suggests that we value the truth over a system, or precisely that, systemized justice, that is, that everything must follow a certain code or chain of events?

Suppose that someone actually committed a murder but did not get a fair trial. In such a case, ought he to be punished for committing the murder or allowed free (assuming there is no court of appeal) because the judicial process failed him and he was not tried fairly?

Now, I feel that the person ought to be punished anyway because the truth is that he committed a murder (something that is somehow very evident) but I know in terms of pure thought that if this were to occur, our entire legal system would collapse. We need fair trials in order to ensure a kind of order; it is more important to defend the legal system which governs us all than worry about the one murderer.

In this case, the system overrides the truth (by which we mean, the hope for further justice in other cases overrides the one individual case.) We are more concerned with protecting the system that in turn protects all of us than actually punishing a crime.

I wondered if the same argument could be applied to religion. Suppose one argues that the goal of religion, similarly to the legal system, is to work for the most protection, a systemized system that helps everyone. Similarly, if at times the truth is avoided or negated in order to benefit the system, this is all right because religion isn't necessarily after truth but after the strongest system to benefit the whole.

There are problems with this analogy because we are arguing the human aspect as opposed to what should be a Divine system (albeit one implemented by humans.) But the conclusions I draw from this don't sit well with me at all. In fact, I still don't like the idea of the legal implications. I understand entirely why we would have to let criminals go if they don't have a fair trial and why the system outweighs the truth (assuming they are really guilty.) But I don't like it. I don't like it at all.

For what is true justice? Is justice meting out punishment in accordance to error or is it implementing a system that will hopefully succeed in doing this? And is justice rooted in the truth or in the system? For some strange and incredible reason, at one point I thought everything was simple enough for justice to be rooted in truth, but now I see that it is not.

I don't like the idea that the good of a system outweighs the truth.

The problem is, I don't see any way around it. And I cannot even argue that there is a way around it in the Torah, for there too, the legal system outweighs truth. There must be two witnesses to a crime (if only one, the witness himself is whipped because he only comes to blacken the person's reputation.) There must be courts of law (indeed, one of the seven Noachide laws.) Here, too, the overall system is more important than the truth and if the system fails in some way or if the right elements are not there (one witness instead of two) the truth is dismissed and deemed unimportant.

Rather an unsettling realization for me.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Stop the Donations!

    ו וַיְצַו מֹשֶׁה, וַיַּעֲבִירוּ קוֹל בַּמַּחֲנֶה לֵאמֹר, אִישׁ וְאִשָּׁה אַל-יַעֲשׂוּ-עוֹד מְלָאכָה, לִתְרוּמַת הַקֹּדֶשׁ; וַיִּכָּלֵא הָעָם, מֵהָבִיא.

    6 And Moses gave commandment, and they caused it to be proclaimed throughout the camp, saying: 'Let neither man nor woman make any more work for the offering of the sanctuary.' So the people were restrained from bringing.

    ז וְהַמְּלָאכָה, הָיְתָה דַיָּם לְכָל-הַמְּלָאכָה--לַעֲשׂוֹת אֹתָהּ; וְהוֹתֵר. {ס}

    7 For the stuff they had was sufficient for all the work to make it, and too much. {S}

    ~Exodus 36:6-7

Every single time I was taught this verse, my teacher said something along the lines of, "If only we had that problem today! If only we had too many people who were willing to help or give tzedakah or otherwise donate their time; if only we were like them and had to be restrained from bringing!"

Well, I happen to know the most fantastic people, because in fact something similar to this verse did occur today.

Basically, I thanked a particular person and then realized some other people might want to thank him, too. I suggested this to a few people and apparently the thank-you letters inundated this person's mailbox to the point that it was disruptive and I basically got the same message, "Stop the Thanks!" (Actually, redirect the thanks.)

Do I not know the most incredibly fantastic people?!

YU students just rock.


I'm a thousand different things to a thousand different people.
I think we all know one another on different levels. And we can only know people as well as they'll let us know them. And we know people in terms of what we ourselves bring to the relationship, the lens through which we view them. It's not that people are pretending. I don't try to be a thousand different things.
It's that we have different things to offer to different people and different functions to fulfill.
Hence it seems like I'm a thousand different things. But I'm really one person.
It's not me that's splintered into pieces. It's the mirror that's shattered.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Exhausted is the New Sexy

We're bringing sexy back...

Yes. We, college students of the world over, are bringing sexy back.

Those black bags under your eyes? Don't even try to hide them. Your pale cheek? Or the reddened mark that suggests you've fallen asleep on top of strange objects that have now imprinted themselves upon your skin? Wear it as a badge of pride. That strange blinking or half-dazed winking in the light because your eyes are full of sand? It makes you cool. The smear of ink on the side of your thumb that you're not even going to bother trying to wash off? That's okay.

If you're one of the living dead, a half-dazed zombie making your way through the day, fumbling as you reach for edible-looking items and scaring your friends with the really desperate look on your face, join the club. I've been told by at least seven people that it's illegal for me to be up right now and that I should be sleeping.

But here's what we need to proclaim to the world...

Exhausted is the New Sexy.

We're bringing sexy back...
Them other students don't know how to act.
They think they're special; what's behind your back
Oh, that's a sharpener, so pencils're where you're at
Take 'em to the teach

Zombie girl
You see these pillows,
Baby, self-control
I'll let you lie down if you do the work
Stop telling me that I'm the jerk

Take 'em to the game

Come here, girl
Come on, just finish it
Come to the desk
Come on, just finish it
Come on, just finish it
Pens're on me
Come on, just finish it
Let me see what you're working with
Come on, just finish it
Look at those tips
Come on, just finish it
You make me smile
Come on, just finish it
Come here, child
Come on, just finish it

Get your tired on
Come on, just finish it

I'm bringing sexy back
Them other students don't know how to act
Come let me help you with the things you lack
Like a working mind and sense of tact
Take 'em to the teach

I'm bringing sexy back
Them other students watch while I attack
The homework; now I've got your back
Cause I'm exhausted, and now that's a fact

Take 'em to the game

(Write your own "Sexy Back" lyrics to "Exhausted is the New Sexy." They'll entertain me. Thanks.)

First Day

Items of food consumed today:

1 and 1/2 chocolate chip cookies
1 bowl of blueberries
1 bowl of cherries
1 small 6 ounce mango smoothie

(Parents, don't freak out. I do plan on eating properly...stop rolling your eyes. See, now I know that the cafeteria closes at 3, which is when all my classes end, so I know that I have to make my lunch during breakfast and bring it along with me. Happily there was welcome food available- hence the cookies and smoothie- otherwise I don't know what I would have done...)

Things of interest:

I have currently learned that hanging up flyers takes a lot longer than I thought. See, it's very easy to tape up flyers, but it's so time consuming to walk from building to building and floor to floor and put them up. It took me about an hour and a half (with the various walks) just to do 215 Lex and most of Brookdale. How sad is that?! So all you flyer-hangers, good for you! People don't appreciate you enough.

My English teacher is a riot, namely because he's got the kind of voice that inflects words very easily and he makes all kinds of ridiculous jokes. Dana said it well; he's not pretentious at all. He suggests declaiming Beowulf on the subway (into your cell phone, as though you are having a conversation in old English.) You either think he's crazy or love him; I love him. I'm lucky enough to have read all the books on the syllabus, which is great because I need to devote my time to other classes, but I'm going to be highly entertained.

Rabbi Mordechai Cohen is as always, brilliant.

Rabbi Ephraim Kanarfogel assigns more work than Rabbi Mordechai Cohen (I didn't even know that was possible.) The fact is, I love what we learned today (I have about seven pages of notes from the one class!) and I'm going to love what we're reading; I think I'll read and inform you of the incredibly fascinating things I'm learning concurrently so that we'll both benefit.

My Hebrew class is interesting. I'm always frustrated in Hebrew, mainly because my comprehension level is extremely high, but my writing and speaking need lots of work. I think it's especially frustrating because I know what I want to say in English (actually, I know about five thousand different ways to express myself in English) and I can't even think of the bare minimum of words that will give the same meaning in Hebrew. Today I had to think how to phrase "achieve a dream" in Hebrew and came up with something like "l'hatzliach b'chalom" or whatnot and was just annoyed. Oh, and entertainingly, I think in biblical Hebrew, not modern, which means that I would do really well if I only had to write and speak in biblical Hebrew. Sigh. But the professor's really nice, so that's a good thing.

And now I actually have to go start my homework (which may entail wandering off to the library in order to photocopy copious amounts of material) so a shoutout to all my friends and I hope your first days were also great!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Rising to the Challenge

I've noticed something rather strange about myself. When I can't work up the will or energy to do something for myself, whether it be to go to a strange place or work on a publication or create a project, I can do it for someone else. If someone else comes to me and asks, I will invariably somehow come up with some way to rise to the challenge. Absurdly, this even works in odd situations where I have to go somewhere new and don't know the way. If I were by myself, the betting is that I'd get lost. When I'm responsible for someone else, everything works out well.

Responsibility changes people. I know that in my case, it changes me for the better. Responsibility means that I have to produce things ASAP per a deadline and do them as well as possible. This leaves little room for me to obsess over how everything can be made better, which is good as well.

Anyway, this is a note to all of you (especially those who actually know me.) I want to explain to you that this year, my computer is not simply a separate entity. My computer is a new limb. It's part of my body.

Basically, I'm going to be living in my room this year (or at the uptown library. Take your pick.) Nearly everything I'm involved in has to do with the written word, which means that I need a computer with Internet access at all times, which means I will be living in my room. Hibernating here, more likely. Here's the deal: I've contracted myself to a whole lot of people, and in deference to my parents, I won't say exactly what it is I feel like, but to phrase it euphemistically, I'm everybody's woman at the moment.

School hasn't even started and I'm swamped in work.

I'll tell you what's so amazing about this, though: it's the sense of challenge. Competitive people like me thrive on challenge. We need challenges; we need the impossible. I have what can be termed a killer schedule [1] (physically and academically- physically in that I have no lunch breaks, which means I go from 9-3 without eating) but I feel like I really go to school for the extracurricular activities. (Parents, please don't throw fits now; I know that schoolwork comes first, etc.)

Basically, this is my own challenge to myself. I know that my schedule is impossible at the moment. The question now is, can I do the impossible?

I'm so excited at the moment; I'm very revved-up and ready to go. I love it when everything seems impossible and crazy. I love insane amounts of pressure. I work very well under pressure. I need everything to be crazy so that I feel a sense of accomplishment when it works out in the end. I think that's the reason that I and others like myself procrastinate so often; it's our challenge to ourselves. We often know we'll earn the expected result if we write our paper early, like we should, so the question now becomes a game, something far more fun- how late can I write this paper and still succeed? We make it a challenge. We need challenges. Challenges, you see, are fun. If a situation is not crazy, we will make it crazy on purpose in order to induce productivity.

Anyway, what will I need from you?
From the people I know, I'll need entertainment (please, emails or stopping by my room is a must, especially if I seem dangerously near tears. Incidentally, that is often a sign that I am on the verge of a breakthrough, and if I like you enough, I'll need you to push me and tell me to stop crying and finish what I started. Be careful if you try that approach; most people aren't able to do it well and you don't want me to be mad at you forever. In fact, don't try that approach unless I tell you that I appreciate your criticism.) I also need places to crash.

And from the others I don't know who read this, that is in and of itself enough!
This is going to be a crazy, amazing, fulfilling and absolutely fantastic year.

Especially since I know someone who has it even harder than me and looked like death tonight. I'm amazed by the fact that he continues on. Anyway, if he can do it, I certainly can.

In his words, after I exclaimed that I'm not going to have a life this year, "What you do becomes your life."

I love that. What you do can represent what you are, what you subscribe to and what you find important. Not always, of course. But at the moment? Hell yeah!

School is going to be intensely fun this year.
[1] I absolutely acknowledge my schedule is not at all comparable to what the guys do uptown, especially those in YP. I doff my hat to all of you.

Screw this, let's go get popcorn

I have a friend who is truly kind to me; I want to thank him for his kindness.

Despite the fact that I believe in things that he must find naive or foolish, despite the fact that I must seem childish or overly idealistic, he is careful not to hurt my dreams or ideas. He is careful not to disillusion me and not to let his cynical viewpoint negatively affect me in any way; when he tells me anything he prefaces it by explaining that I oughtn't to base decisions off of his ideas.

He doesn't laugh at me or dismiss me or brush me away, even when that would be a legitimate response. Instead he takes the time to explain a situation to me, to try to describe his point of view, and all unknowing, when he does so, he suddenly becomes more real and more human because I can hear in his voice, more than words could tell me, exactly what he feels and what is true. And I know that he is telling me the truth and that he always will; he will simply make the truth as gentle as possible for me. He won't shelter me from it but he will try not to let it change me; he wants me to know enough so that I can judge and judge well but does not want me to know what will hurt or disturb me.

I have to wonder at how careful he is with me, how gentle with his words and ideas. He has the power to harm, to laugh, to mock me if he wished, a strange power that I hadn't realized he held in his hands until tonight! But only tonight, when I see him so gentle and so careful do I realize the alternative and see what he could do and I almost shudder to see what he has not done, what he has been careful not to do. He tells me what I need to know and then cautions me not to worry about it, not to lose sleep over it. It's so considerate and I realize now that I hadn't seen it before.

It's strange and rewarding to discover new facets to a person's character; I know someone one way, but then they reveal another side or suddenly show me what they could do but don't do and then I realize there's so much more; everyone has their hidden depths.

So thank you, my friend, for being so kind to me. Thank you for explaining things and then warning me not to be hurt them. Thanks for making me laugh and changing the topic to make everything more light-hearted.

In the end, when you're making me divide by zero, I agree:

"Screw this, let's go get popcorn."

Monday, August 27, 2007

Compliments, Newspapers and Press

I stayed at the Honors Program Orientation for new students because my friend was there and the man in the yellow hat's friend was there. During the lecture, Rabbi Kanarfogel spoke about the Honors Program students and gave as an example one who is a "blogger of some excellence" who got down his entire speech (and he noted that he speaks quite quickly) verbatim. He has no idea who this blogger is, of course. He then explained his lecture had been picked up by LAMED and he had received numerous complimentary emails about it.

Aside from turning bright red and giggling, so that Dr. Wachtell found out who I am and told Rabbi Kanarfogel he had happened to praise this blogger while she was in the room without his even knowing who I am, and then being introduced to him officially, I have to say I'm really entertained. What are the odds? What are the odds that a second-year student chooses to attend the new students' Honors Program Orientation and hears Rabbi Kanarfogel, in a lecture addressed to all the new students, praise her in particular? This just shows that you are placed wherever God wants you to be...this is quite the most entertaining thing ever.


This is one of our brilliant, competent editors who got our issue of The Observer up online. It is sheer brilliance. Check it out. Read the whole thing. Especially opinions.

You are going to want to be keeping that website on your radar:

Good things happen when Sara Lefkovitz is involved. Very, very good things.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Golden-Haired Girl

Tonight was the golden-haired girl's twenty-first birthday. I stepped into her house and was greeted by her mother, who threw her arms around me and made me feel so welcome. Then I was met by my surrogate father, who laughingly expressed his joy at seeing me. I was made to feel like I was her sister, welcomed back into the family fold. She was wearing this beautiful red pin that lights up and says "Kiss Me, It's My Birthday." So I did.

We went outside for the barbecue, which was absolutely beautiful. Her mother had slaved away cooking and buying and creating this marvelously fun atmosphere; all these people placed together in one house, at one place and time, dancing to the mix created by my friend Taz (where he laughingly remarked that he thinks none of the songs are explicit but one) or sitting at the table and eating the meatballs, ribs, chicken wings, potato kugel, coleslaw and other excellent delicacies.

I had my first taste of beer tonight. Strange that I have tasted champagne before tasting beer; I do not find beer to be excellent at all. I did enjoy the far rarer beverage my surrogate father pressed on me. I found it amusing that I caused my friend to lose a bet because he claimed I wouldn't even sip at the beer...

But how to describe the party? How to describe the ambiance? First, it is colorful. We are outside and it is dark and there is a man tending to the grill, smiling and turning about, a wonderful birthday hat with candles and a cake, the golden-haired girl wearing beautiful clothes and beautifully made up; her mother with golden eye shadow lining her eyes, making her look mysterious and lovely. There is the keg of beer on a side table and her father laughingly apportioning it out and saying, "Olivia!" in his commanding tone as a challenge but knowing that I will willingly taste it.

How to describe the feeling? This intense feeling of love and acceptance and the absolute joy that comes of seeing all my friends again, friends I have wanted to meet up with and share time with for a long while now. It is wonderful to just relax and be silly, to watch my one friend swinging in the red hammock, my other friend laughed at because of his goatee. I cannot help but relax and take in everything with joy. There is so much fun here and it is wonderful to be in a place that is nothing but fun. I am teased, but it is the good kind of teasing, and I laugh to know that I am accepted and that all is warm.

Then my friends start dancing and it's the silly kind of dancing, so I am called over and challenge one of the other guests, the same one who has been preparing our steaks, because I can see him tapping his feet; "Get up and dance!" I urge, assuming he will do so. He surprises me by completely sweeping me off my feet and engaging in some very stylish moves, most including elaborate twists I cannot accomplish without his guidance. I was laughing the whole time, mostly because he got such pleasure out of it. He's a friend of the family, a father, doctor and a neighbor; everyone was laughing and I felt like a little girl again, treading on my father's slippers as we danced around the living room. That's just his way and I enjoy being treated like a family member; he then attempted to teach me a "line dance" but I can't say that he succeeded. Everyone was having far too much fun snapping pictures of me and threatening to blackmail me. I laughed, of course. "I'm not ashamed of what I do," I said, and reclined in the chair under the night sky.

We had three different cakes for dessert. Two were bought for the occasion and one was actually brought by a guest, made out of a Duncan Hines mix but very beautifully presented. Afterwards I ordered everyone to compose little speeches for the birthday girl, so we went around the table and presented her with our words. I love her very much and she is very special to me so I am glad that everyone had such beautiful things to say about her. Her parents are so proud of her and they should be, because she is one of the most inspiring, positive, optimistic people upon this green earth.

She is the kind of considerate, caring person who would not open her gifts in front of her guests lest she cause someone embarrassment because one person might have bought her a more elaborate or expensive gift than the other. She laughed so much tonight and to see her laugh was a pleasure, and I was so pleased that our company and our joy pleased her. She was the one who made us happy tonight, her presence is the magic that sets our joy alight.

A golden-haired girl with a laugh and smile who doesn't mind being silly and having fun, who is an absolute beauty, whose gorgeous eyes flecked with gold smile up at me and whose house I am sitting in right now, at the dining room table, though she doesn't know I am writing this for her.

How can I ever thank her? How can I thank them all for coming into my life and being willing to include me in everything? This is a blessing far beyond my imagining.

Happy 21st birthday, my golden-haired girl.

I wish you health, happiness and much luck in all your future endeavors.

When you are around, people light up; you are able to make them glow. That is your power and your skill and I hope that you will always retain it and use it, because it was you who caused such joy today.

That is your skill, joy-bringer. I bless you with that ability; may you always bring joy to all you meet. I love you, I love you, I love you...

Saturday, August 25, 2007


Much of what I once said was naive, immature. And it seems to me now that perhaps we were not really wasting time. Despite the madness of war, we lived for a world that would be different. For a better world to come when all this is over. And perhaps even our being here is a step towards that world. Do you really think that, without the hope that such a world is possible, that the rights of man will be restored again, we could stand the concentration camp even for one day? It is that very hope that makes people go without a murmur to the gas chambers, keeps them from risking a revolt, paralyses them into numb inactivity. It is hope that breaks down family ties, makes mothers renounce their children, or wives sell their bodies for bread, or husbands kill. It is hope that compels man to hold on to one more day of life, because that day may be the day of liberation. Ah, and not even the hope for a different, better world, but simply for life, a life of peace and rest. Never before in the history of mankind has hope been stronger than man, but never also has it done so much harm as it has in this war, in this concentration camp. We were never taught how to give up hope, and this is why today we perish in gas chambers.

~This Way For The Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, pages 121-122

drowned out by beauty

You know how much I used to like Plato. Today I realize he lied. For the things of this world are not a reflection of the ideal, but a product of human sweat, blood and hard labour. It is we who built the pyramids, hewed the marble for the temples and the rocks for the imperial roads, we who pulled the oars in the galleys and dragged wooden ploughs, while they wrote dialogues and dramas, rationalized their intrigues by appeals in the name of the Fatherland, made wars over boundaries and democracies. We were filthy and died real deaths. They were 'aesthetic' and carried on subtle debates.

There can be no beauty if it is paid for by human injustice, nor truth that passes over injustice in silence, nor moral virtue that condones it.

What does ancient history say about us? It knows the crafty slave from Terence and Plautus, it knows the people's tribunes, the brothers Gracchi, and the name of one slave- Spartacus.

They are the ones who have made history, yet the murderer-Scipio-the lawmakers- Cicero or Demosthenes-are the men remembered today. We rave over the extermination of the Etruscans, the destruction of Carthage, over treason, deceit, plunder. Roman law! Yes, today too there is a law!

If the Germans win the war, what will the world know about us? They will erect huge buildings, highways, factories, soaring monuments. Our hands will be placed under ever brick, and our backs will carry the steel rails and the slabs of concrete. They will kill off our families, our sick, our aged. They will murder our children.

And we shall be forgotten, drowned out by the voices of the poets, the jurists, the philosophers, the priests. They will produce their own beauty, virtue and truth. They will produce religion.

~This Way For The Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, pages 131-132


This frightened me because it is true.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

King Solomon & The Arabian Nights

Per Wikipedia, King Solomon was around from 970 to 928 BC. The Arabian Nights, on the other hand, were compiled somewhere between AD 800-900. So Solomon predates the Arabian Nights.

That being said, I am still unsure as to whether the following tale is a tale-type that was utilized by the midrash/ folklore, or whether it honestly first appears by King Solomon and then shows up in the Arabian Nights. Anyway, the story appears in Legends of King Solomon as follows:
    The Talk of Beasts and Twittering of Birds

    Solomon had a faithful friend in a distant country who used to come and stay in the royal palace at Jerusalem every year, bringing gifts with him. The king in return would give him gifts for his people.

    On one occasion this faithful friend came to the king, and as usual he brought him a fine present. This time his gift was exceptionally precious, and when the time came for them to part, King Solomon wished to give him something equally precious in return. But his friend refused to take it, saying, "My lord the King, I do not wish to take any presents from you. The God who dwells in heaven has given me of His bounty; He has made my business prosper and has blessed everything I do. I have plenty and I lack for nothing. There is only one thing that I would beg of you, if you wish to show me your favor. I pray you, great King, teach me to understand the twittering of the birds and the talk of the beasts."

    Solomon answered: "I will grant you your request; this knowledge which you desire will I not keep from you. Yet it is a very dangerous thing to know, a great secret indeed. If you reveal a single word of all you hear, to any person, you will surely perish."

    But his friend answered fearlessly, "I greatly yearn to understand the languages of animals and birds, and if I find favor in your eyes, my lord King, please let me know this small part of your wisdom. I in turn will be careful and shall not reveal it."

    When the king saw how greatly his friend longed for this knowledge, he taught him the secrets of this wisdom. Cheerful and rejoicing, the faithful friend returned home.

    One evening the man sat at the entrance to his home. When he saw his ox returning from the hard work of the field, he led it into the cowshed and tied it up beside the donkey. In front of the ox he placed hay, but he did not put any food in front of the donkey, for it had been sick that day and had done no work. The donkey turned to the ox and said:

    "How are you, brother ox? How do men treat you?"

    And the ox answered: "Brother donkey, my life is hard, very hard. All day long and all night long I toil bitterly and exhaust myself."

    The donkey replied, "If you wish to have rest and ease from your heavy toil, take my advice, and things will go well with you from now on."

    "O have pity on me, and out of your great kindness tell me your good advice. I promise you, I shall follow your words to the letter. For I am weary and exhausted and I yearn for rest." So lowed the ox sadly.

    "I am thinking only of your good," promised the donkey, "and I speak to you honestly. Accept my words as the advice of a true friend. Do not eat any of the hay which the master set before you tonight. When our master sees that you have not touched the food he has given you, he will think that you are sick, and he will not send you to work in the field. Then you can rest and be at ease as I was today; for our master thinks that I am ill."

    The advice of the donkey seemed good to the ox, and he acted on it.

    Meanwhile their master bore the matter in mind and went home. During the night he rose from his bed, and stealthily entered the cowshed. He saw the donkey standing at the stall of the ox gorging the hay. Now the man realized how cunning the donkey was. He began to laugh aloud, and was still laughing when he returned to his room. His laughter woke his wife from her sleep, and she asked him: "What in the world is so funny in the middle of the night?"

    But the man remembered Solomon's warning and said: "I just remembered something that happened to me today, and that was why I laughed."

    Next morning the man went to the cowshed where he found that the donkey had left just a little straw, so that their master might think that the ox had not eaten everything up. He turned to his boy and said:

    "Look, the ox is sick and has not eaten, so let him rest today and do no work. Take the donkey in his place, and make him do both his own work and the ox's work as well."

    In the evening the donkey returned weary and exhausted from the work. He stood tired and drooping in the cowshed beside the ox; and their master was not far away either. When the ox saw his friend the donkey, he said to him: "Brother, have you heard what these wicked people intend to do to me?"

    "I heard them say," answered the donkey, "that if the ox does not eat tonight, either, they will slaughter him and turn his flesh into something tasty."

    When the ox heard this he lowed in terror and thrust his head into the crib, never raising it at all until he finished all the hay that had been put before him. This time as well the man heard the words of the donkey and understood how cunning the creature was. Now too he burst out laughing. Once again his wife wondered, and said:

    "What are you laughing at all the time? Yesterday you laughed and I thought to myself that this could only be accidental; but now you burst out laughing again, and there isn't anybody telling you any jokes. Surely you will tell me why you are laughing. Or are you laughing at me? I swear I shall not talk to you until you tell me the real reason why you have been laughing."

    Then the man began to try to pacify her, saying: "Heaven forbid that I should laugh at you, my beloved wife. I had quite a different reason, but I cannot tell it to you."

    "I swear," cried the woman, "that I shall not eat or drink until I know the reason for your laughter. Do you mean to say that you will hide your secrets from me?"

    When the man saw that there was no escape from his wife's scolding and complaining, he said to her:

    "My beloved, do not be angry; and do not fast on my account. I would far sooner die than hurt a single hair of your head. For what have I in my home except you? Leave me for a little while, and I shall make my will; for once I tell you my secret I am bound to perish."

    Now this man had a very faithful dog in his house, and it sensed that its master was about to die. from then on it refused to eat any of the rich meat set before it, but sat in a dark corner barking mournfully. A rooster saw this, and came swiftly to snatch up the bread and the meat and bring them to the hens. And they all ate together, very pleased at the rich and unexpected feast.

    When the dog saw how pleased they were, it jumped up and barked in fury:

    "You wretch of a rooster! How impudent you are and how shameless! Here our master is about to die, and you go eating and enjoying yourself in his home!"

    Then the rooster crowed long and loud, and he said: "If your master is a simpleton and a fool, what can I do about it? Is that any reason why I shouldn't eat? Look at me. I have ten wives and I rule them as I desire, and not one of them dares to disobey me. When I feel like it I laugh and when I feel like it I shout, and none of them even dreams of asking me why I laugh or shout. Yet look that master of yours: he has only one wife, and he cannot rule over her."

    "Why, what should he do?" asked the dog. "She has sworn that she will not eat or drink until he tells her his secret!"

    "If he were to shout at her and answer all she says with one big cock-a-doodle-do like me, she would not bother him any more."

    The man listened to this talk between the dog and the rooster, and he did what the wise bird said. He scolded his wife severely, and everything very swiftly returned to its proper state of affairs.

Lovely message, eh?

But here's the part that I find fascinating: this exact story is found in the Arabian Nights, otherwise known as The Book of One Thousand and One Nights.

It's titled The Fable of the Ass, the Ox, and the Labourer.

The one major difference is that instead of the wife saying that she will not eat, the following occurs:
    The wife responded by withholding all sexual favours from him until he did. The farmer's house was then thrown into great consternation, as the wife remained completely obstinate. The farmer then overheard the cock telling the dog that the only way to govern such a woman was to thrash her soundly. The farmer did this and succeeded in restoring order to his household. The grand visier suggests that the obstinate Scheherazade should be treated in much the same way by himself as the farmer treated his wife.

    In spite of the visier's objections, however, Scheherazade is married to Schahriar and proceeds with her as-yet unspecified plan of keeping the sultan in a state of constant suspense by telling him a series of narratives, none of which is capable of being completed within the space of a single night.

So now I'm wondering: where did this tale originate, and when? The version I have regarding King Solomon, was that deliberately changed to make it appropriate for children or is that the true version? Is the King Solomon tale based on the Arabian Nights or is the Arabian Nights based on King Solomon?

It's lots of fun to note how the same tales show up in the different types of literature, but that always leaves me with more questions than answers.

Obstacle Courses, Debris and Half-Hour Heroes

Head over to Chicago if you feel like experiencing the wrath and fury of a god-awful storm. My dad and sister have been holed up at his work for about two hours and are now driving home through swimming pools of water on the roads, avoiding debris, scattered tree limbs, broken and twisted metal signs and dead streetlights. Basically, dangerous driving 101; can you survive this?

But I figure they'll make it in one piece, so that's all good.

Better story- I now feel incredibly complimented. So I'm sitting in my room when the phone rings; I pick it up to hear the lovely tones of a fantastic person who informs me that she's calling because she's wondering if I can write something for her in about a half an hour? She gives me the requisite details, me knowing nothing about the topic, seems extremely calm despite what must be ever-creeping panic, then hangs up.

Anyway, I thought that was the sweetest thing ever. Isn't it nice to be thought of in such a situation? Don't know what to do- call Chana! She will write you pieces in under thirty minutes!

So I am now in an absurdly good mood.

It's been a good day.


I went to the hairstylist yesterday. I have an interesting habit. Whenever I'm among people, especially people who do me a service (like the hairstylist or manicurist and the like) I love to ask them about themselves. I often ask them all sorts of questions and I always ask them whether they enjoy their job. If they answer affirmatively, I then ask what they enjoy most (if I'm at the hairstylist's, I'll ask them which cuts they like to give, what colors they'd like to dye people's hair and at the manicurist's I'll ask what kind of hands and feet they like best and the colors of nail polish they prefer.)

And then I ask them for their stories. It's what I do best, collecting stories. You'd be amazed by what people have seen.

So my hairstylist yesterday was named Sherry. She explained that she's been around a tough crowd. Said that she's given haircuts since she was three (used to comb the dye into her father's hair) and made money ever since she was five (her father would drive her around with her little blowdryer and brush and she would cut people's hair and earn two to four bucks.) She described the different places she'd worked, how by one of them she used to have to go out front to pick up the syringes and empty booze bottles and throw them away.

The she told me the following story. It's an excellent story, but I warn you that you've got to have a morbid sense of humor to appreciate it.

Sherry: Well, I've had a gun thrown at me.

Olivia: Seriously?

Sherry: Sure. One of my customers called me up late at night and told me that he was going to off himself. So I say to him, sure, okay, just do me a favor first. So he says, what's the favor. So I say, go get yourself some Hefty garbage bags first. So he drives out to the store and buys the Hefty garbage bags and then calls me back and says, now what. So I say, okay. Put a garbage bag over your head and then blow your brains out. Hopefully the bag will catch the pieces of brain and gunk and other s--- and make it easier for someone to clean up after you.

[she laughs]

He was so mad at me that he drove all the way down to Champaign to throw the gun at me. Walked into my house and threw it at me.

Olivia: Did he hit you?

Sherry: Nah, he missed.

Olivia: That's...genius. How did you come up with that?

Sherry: I have no idea how it came to me.

Olivia: Did he end up committing suicide?

Sherry: No, he didn't off himself. So it all worked out.

[if I knew how to whistle and could do a low whistle, that's what you would insert here]

I've seen plenty of crazy day this girl comes into my shop; she hasn't got any shoes on. She was running from her boyfriend; he was beating her...

Olivia: That's awful.

Sherry: Yeah. You been doing this job as long as I have, you see plenty of crazy s---. See, it's the sense of touch. When you go to a psychologist or a shrink, they can't touch you. But here, I'm touching them, their hair, and that forms an instant bond. People feel comfortable telling you anything that's on their mind, their problems and sorrows and troubles. When I first started, I used to carry that all around with me. But I've learned to let it go. Now I let what they tell me here stay here.

Olivia: And when you go home do you deal with it?

Sherry: Sweetheart, the first thing I do when I go home is make myself a cocktail. And I tell everyone to leave me alone and not to speak to me. [she puts up her hand in a 'go away' gesture for emphasis]

We continue this conversation as I see how she has to hear and listen to so many people's problems and then shed this burden before coming home to pursue her own life. By the time we're leaving she tells me that she could provide the source material and I ought to write a book (since she'd mentioned that she has enough stories to fill a book.) I was telling her that she should check into Augusten Burroughs and the way he writes. And of course, I thanked her for her stories.

I think what she said about touch is brilliant. She's right that we feel instantly closer to people we touch. Of course, the circumstances have to be friendly- there's a difference between the doctor's office, where every touch can be nervewracking since you assume the doctor is judging you or has found something problematic in your body- and the touch of a hairstylist as she does your hair, talking to her fellow hairstylists, walking purposefully to one station or another, discussing the latest celebrity news, listening to the radio that plays through the speakers. That environment is friendly and open so people are more willing to speak.

You know who is curing society? The hairstylists and manicurists and the listeners. Of course there are two kinds; the people who are forced to listen as opposed to those whose talent is listening (like Sherry.) I bet most customers don't even realize how much pain these listeners siphon off from them.

It's fascinating to hear about their lives, the listeners. I love their stories. I remember at one time I used to pity people who worked in a nail shop. I figured that no one would actually want to touch people's feet all day (although honestly, I don't understand dentists, either. Who would want to have to deal with all that gunk in people's teeth?) And then I had the most fascinating conversation with my manicurist who explained that she loves her job and she loves making people feel pretty and happy, boosting their self-confidence. She sees nail design as art and is expressing her creativity when she does it. The exact same thing applies to hair; many hairstylists also see themselves as artists and are expressing their creativity; they love their jobs.

Definitely not all of them; some people end up in beauty professions simply because they weren't able to make it in their chosen area of interest, and those are always the sad stories. But even then, it's really amazing to hear about people's lives and find out how they ended up at the place they are at.

Next time you go to your dentist, doctor, manicurist or hairstylist, you might consider asking them for their stories. I promise they'll be interesting. It will also enable you to thank them, a little, for the good care they take of us. And by that I mean everything from providing us with the service we pay them for to providing us with the more meaningful, more important service of hearing us out. Sometimes that's all someone needs.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Ratatouille is...Racist?

I saw Ratatouille in theaters yesterday. It's a truly wonderful movie. I love it immensely. There's just one problem.

Its villain is decidedly...ethnic. And the rest of the characters are...not.

As someone who finds this whole branch of history quite interesting, I'd like to point out the less than stellar records of most of the large animation companies. Disney is the largest and the one I know the most about (at one point in time I read lots and lots of books on Disney, and of course the Internet is always an interesting resource.) One famous example of Disney's apparent racism is in the classic movie Aladdin. Note that Jasmine and Aladdin look decidedly Caucasian. Their skin is so fair you wouldn't know they were supposed to be Arabs unless they up and told you. Now consider the evil vizier Jafar.

Not so Caucasian, eh?

Which brings me to Ratatouille. Lovely movie, great characters. Except that they're all supposed to be French, yes? And they're all supposed to look French.

So why does everyone look white and Caucasian until you get to the villain?

Look at the lineup:

Gusteau- definitely white
Linguini- white and red-haired
Colette- white

Even the sallow, dour critic with the attitude is white (tinged with shades of blue, certainly, but still, the skin color is white.)


Not so white anymore, eh?

In fact, he looks a hell of a lot like Jafar, doesn't he? The whole movie long I saw him as a shorter, sillier version of Jafar.

I wonder how long it takes before someone accuses Pixar of racism. I also wonder whether they meant it. I'm willing to bet they didn't. But you really can't make everyone else in a movie look sweet and white (like Disney did with Aladdin, Jasmine and the Sultan) and then have one person stand out as ethnic and have that person be the villain..and not expect a response, now can you?

I'm curious as to whether anybody else noticed this.

Logic & Imagination

To put it another way, FKM and Slifkin believe in a single truth; Chana in a double one.
~Professor Lawrence Kaplan (in a comment on Hirhurim)

Logic and imagination- oftentimes cast as two enemies, fighting one another in an attempt to secure the soul of a person. How can they possibly get along? Poets are often seen as dreamers, unable to remain rooted in the present reality, whereas lawyers are extremely real- their biting remarks and retorts sting the ears of their listeners. I seem to live in a middle plane, a place that, by rights, should not exist. I love to write, to create, and to imagine, but I also love justice. Critical analysis, which requires the incisiveness of a lawyer, and creative writing, which opens the door to alternate worlds, rest side by side in my mind. I live within the contradiction, create order from chaos. It is an existence that is wholly mine.

It was my parents who raised me to believe equally in these two seemingly dissimilar patterns of thought. From my earliest days, as a child who loved fairy-tales, the elements of both the imaginary fantasy realms and those of very rational justice were stressed. In fact, justice was demonstrated through fantasy. Hansel and Gretel needed to use their wits to survive, resourcefully resorting to dropped stones or breadcrumbs. In the end, the witch is killed, and good reigns triumphant. But the witch does not just die- no! It is Gretel who must push her into the oven.

But this intertwining of logic and imagination is not limited to the secular realms. No! It is precisely the way I live my life as a Jew.

This is best evidenced by my two greatest influences, the Ba'al Shem Tov and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

"What?" people often cry. "How can you do that? How can you mix the two? The Ba'al Shem Tov is the founder of Chassidism, the epitome of joy, a wild and fantastical communion with nature and God, transcendence and reaching, while the Rav is an absolute Litvak, a man who talks about bringing heaven down to earth and utilizing it here in our world, a man bound by the rules of Halakha, strict and structured, a man who emphasized the idea of commitment to and the absolute preeminence of the law!"

It is astonishing and a little sad that these same people who question me fail to take into account that their goals are the same. The Ba'al Shem Tov's wild, joyous dancing and the Rav's passionate, consistent dedication to the mitzvot are both ways of serving God and bringing others to serve Him, both expressions of their Divinely bestowed creativity and love for His people. Those who see Chassidism as wholly without structure are incorrect and anyone who claims the Rav had no passion or creativity is a fool. Their movements emphasized different aspects of the relationship to God; the Ba'al Shem Tov emphasized the pure and holy intention of the person while the Rav emphasized the fulfillment of a mitzvah per its Halakhic requirements. But they were nevertheless grounded in the same strong base; all things return to their great desire to serve God with love and joy.

What do I love about the Ba'al Shem Tov? I love his absolute acceptance of all Jews, no matter how learned or unlearned. I love the way he interacts with the simple people, the way he listens to them and understands them and gives them of his time. I love the way he tells his talmidim to learn from them, understands that these people have reached heights that even his students, with all their Torah study, cannot reach. I love the way in which he is shrouded in mysticism, magic, a cloak of mystery and grandeur. I love his passionate dedication to God, the way in which he began his career by teaching the little children, the way in which he went out to the forest to pray. I love his absolute understanding and certainty that there are worlds beyond this one, his ability to commune with souls and raise them to higher levels in the next world. I love the way in which he raises up souls by performing a tikkun here on earth for them or joins together two people who have come back to earth but who no longer remember one another. I love his insight, his knowledge, the humble nature in which he hid himself from the world and masked his greatness until the time came for him to be revealed, the majesty and magic in everything that he does. I love the beauty of his life, one that is so fulfilled and laden with meaning.

And what do I love about the Rav? I love his devotion, his dedication to his ideals and to his God. I love the fact that religion is a passionate experience for him even though it is rooted in a Law which can perhaps seem dry, a Law that is equally applicable to donkeys and oxen and matters of life and death. I love that for him this Law is not dry but the ultimate way in which to experience God and to come close to Him. I love the way in which he is positive and looks forward to everything that we can do better, how he focuses on "recreating the destroyed worlds" instead of lamenting over all those who have fallen. I love that he is willing to sacrifice his own name and reputation if only he is able to help others. I love that he realizes his own strengths, that he admits his own flaws, that he is human through and through. I love the way that he describes God, the way that he struggles with Him, the way that he understands the disconnect that I feel, how God is at once God of the cosmos and my own personal God, how I am at once the ruler of the earth and a tiny, insignificant dust speck. I love the way in which he defends his people, the way that he ascribes the limits and flaws of the Jews to "the circumstances which corrupted them."

It is this above all things that I love: his love for his people.

And that is precisely where the Ba'al Shem Tov and Rabbi Soloveitchik connect; they both love their people and want to advance them, to show them a method of living that will help them, that will bring them close to God. Their methods are different but their goals are the same; one of them epitomizes homo religiosus and all that is transcendent, mystical and not easily understood by the rational mind while the other one throws himself into the text and the law, the code that was God's gift to his people. One focuses on that which is based on the heart and the soul, the spirit, while the other works with what is real and tangible, the body. But they aim for the same goal and even help others to reach that goal.

And I? Where do I fit in?

I take from both.

I am a very peculiar person. My default setting is to dance toward everything that is imaginative. I love the midrash, aggadata, Hassidic tales, the supernatural episodes in the Torah, fairy tales and magic. I view all of this in a very calm manner because as far as I am concerned, it is all true. I have no problem envisioning the magic of Ov and Yidoni. It is very real for me. Everything grand, inexplicable, vibrant and colorful comes from the realms of the imagination, everything which cannot be easily explained. I do not "believe" in these things; I take them as a reality. This is in part based on my family; I come from Sephardim who are masters of kabbalah. My mother was taught Chumash and Kabbalah in equal measure; she will often express the most mystical ideas in a very clear, rational voice and cite her father as teaching this to her as a child. I do not take these ideas on faith; I do not find them difficult. I personally know, you see, people who are able to foretell the future, people who have dreams such as those described in the Gemara, where they are told of the hidden location of a sum of money or see a deceased relative who bears a message for them. I do not need to believe. I know.

At the same time, I understand the problems that people have with these ideas and midrashim. I understand how this can be a source of great concern for them. Our modern world has replaced magic with technology. Everything needs to be understood, taken apart and put back together with our gadget-oriented minds. If it does not make sense, there is a flaw in the argument, certainly not in me. I understand people's hesitation when it comes to accepting the supernatural or the miraculous, their desire for everything to make logical and rational sense. I understand the need for books like Rabbi Natan Slifkin's, which stress the scientific understanding of the world, which explain away the miraculous by citing those who read it as being allegorical. I know so many people who have been helped by these books, who are able to breathe a sigh of relief now that they understand better. And I think that is an absolutely wonderful thing. And an extremely legitimate way of life. And these books are necessary and beautiful and help reveal our world in an even more wonderful sense and they must be published and mustn't be banned or forbidden, for if they are, then these wonderful minds that we have, these questioning and curious minds will think that there is no one like them, no one who sees things they way they do! And that could not be more of a lie.

But what I'd like to explain is that I believe both. I absolutely believe in the creation of our world in six days by a fascinating God whose spirit appears, hovering over the surface of the waters. I believe that his very words are able to separate light from darkness, that his words are powerful enough to create a world. And I also believe in and understand evolution and the fact that it took thousands to millions of years and that creatures slowly became those creatures that we see today.

And I don't try to reconcile the two. I don't try to squeeze the one interpretation to fit the other, to try to force evolution into the midrashic, mystical version or vice versa. Because I see no need to do so. Because for me, both ideas are legitimate and they are both true. There's the logical explanation and the imaginative explanation and they must both exist, else the human could not exist.

For tell me, what is a human without his imagination? A dry, passionless being, devoid of color or vibrancy, unable to act in a spontaneous fashion, unable to create or to truly love anything, love without reason or limit. And what is a human without his rational mind, his logic? A foolish, ridiculous being, someone who will accept any nonsense and take it as truth, an animal perhaps, wholly instinctual in action but without any form of reason, anything that makes him question and want to know why.

Chassidism is aimed at looking at everything and seeing what is holy within it, what can be uplifted. This is the idea of raising up sparks, the idea of the kelipot. Everything in this world has a purpose and we are part of it. When I eat this chicken and make a blessing over it, I have lifted up the spirit of the chicken and helped it perform its holy and divine purpose. When I take this secular song and learn something wonderful and helpful from its lyrics, I have uplifted this song and helped it perform its purpose. We aim for transcendence. It is our souls that matter, not our bodies. People return to this world held captive by bodies that refuse to aid them, bodies that are slow or crippled or handicapped. And why? Because the soul requested a container that would not allow them to sin. They have come back to earth to rectify a particular error and do not desire to commit more sins while here.

The Rav's approach, in contrast, is aimed at looking at everything and utilizing it for the here and now. One must focus on the material, the mundane, the very body. It is the body that must serve God, that must subscribe to halakha. Halakha rules over every part of the body. It rules over one's appetites; we have the dietary laws, laws restricting our sexual appetites (the idea of forbidden and permitted relationships and niddah), our possessions, our money, our income. Halakha is about this world, this body, this existence. We do not bring in the ideas of former existences; we do not worry about gilguls. This world is immanent, material and necessary. All of our actions here have meaning. As he wrote, "If you desire an exoteric, democratic religiosity, get thee unto the empirical, earthly life, and the life of the body with all its two hundred forty-eight organs and three hundred sixty-five sinews. Do not turn your attention to an exalted spiritual life rooted in abstract worlds…it is not the spirit that is charged with carrying out the religious process but the physical-biological individual…” (Halakhic Man, 44).

This is the difference between aggadata and halakha. Aggada is based on the soul. It is the spiritual approach to God, based on the idea of transcendence and the desire to reach and draw close to Him. Halakha is based on the body. Halakha governs our physical needs, our bodies. It is the physical approach to God, based on the idea of immanence and the desire to create heaven on earth. One need not transcend in order to reach God; one must recreate his abode here in our beloved world. And we need both. We cannot have a religion that is wholly based on aggada; we cannot have a religion that is wholly based on halakha. It is their union, the complete and perfect whole, that represents true Judaism.

Nowadays, we have more difficulty with the idea of the imagination. People are more educated and less in tune with their emotions. We appreciate science and technology, wish to understand how things work; our gadget-oriented mind wants to dissect ideas and put them back together again. If we do not understand something, the flaw could hardly be in me; it must be in the argument presented. People do not like to be conned or tricked. Our world is not one that boasts extraordinary, wondrous and supernatural events. Magic and the miraculous seem like trickery.

And so people look down on those who still believe in the power of imagination. This is reserved for children. Only children are allowed to be imaginative, idealistic and love magic and creativity. When you grow up, you are supposed to look forward to a cold and harsh reality, a long hard slog. People think you are peculiar if you are an adult with a dream. So people don't talk about dreams. They don't talk about their ideas because they are afraid that you will laugh at them. The truth is that many people laugh because they are uncomfortable with the subject, and they are only uncomfortable with it because we have taught them to be this way.

People let me get away with what I think because I can still pass for a child. But I have received my share of pitying looks and hidden smiles. And it makes me sad, because it means that the adult is detached from one part of himself, alienated from the creative, original and interesting part. I just wish that people could allow themselves to be themselves, even the parts that aren't popular at the moment.

Do you know what I see? I see a beautiful world filled with beautiful people. And some people dance more towards one side of the spectrum than the other. Some of them are invested in this physical world, in creating heaven on earth. They fulfill the law through their body; the Halakha guides them in all of their actions. And some of them are invested in the spiritual world; they follow Halakha but are more interested in the soul, in all that is transcendent and they struggle to raise us up to heaven. Each person has their particular calling and their particular way of fulfilling it and that is fine. There is no need for someone whose prime way of interacting with the world is through his intellect and his reason to suddenly attempt to live a transcendent, aggadic life. But he must acknowledge that part of his personality and realize that it exists. You cannot deny yourself.

I define myself as Modern Orthodox but I don't know what you would actually call me. It seems to me that the Modern Orthodox movement is very concerned with things that can be quantified and explained. Evolution, mathematics, science and the like are all very important. We allow for biblical criticism and academic scholarship. Everything is very much based on reason and intellect. And I wonder where the passion went and the joy and the realization that there is magic to this as well. And I wonder what the children are being taught and whether it is all based on the logical, understandable and rational. Please don't get me wrong. I love logic and reason. I have great respect for people who are logically able to defend a point or way of being; there is a reason that I try to figure things out. I find science to be amazing and inspiring; I am fascinated by our bodies and genetics and the progress that we have made. But I hope that the same children who are taught this very factual and scientific view of the Torah are able to experience the joy and amazement that comes through exposure to the midrash. And are not made to feel that one way of understanding is superior to the other. Because that's not true.
They're both necessary.

I love the Ba'al Shem Tov. And I love Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. And I see no contradiction in my two loves. Because I believe that we were always meant to live a life that couples logic and imagination, the beautiful Judaism that is an amalgam of halakha and aggadata.

Monday, August 20, 2007

theme song to your life

Neil Gaiman in Anansi Boys suggests that we each have a theme song to our lives. It's the song that plays over and over, a soulful melody or the thin strains of a plaintive violin. It's strong or soft; it has a tempo, a rhythm and a beat or it fades away and underneath, very subtly there.

I think my theme song is "The Rainbow Connection" as performed by The Carpenters. (You can hear their version here; pay no attention to the video.)
    Why are there so many songs about rainbows
    and what's on the other side?
    Rainbows are visions, but only illusions,
    and rainbows have nothing to hide.
    So we've been told and some choose to believe it.
    I know they're wrong, wait and see.
    Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection.
    The lovers, the dreamers and me.

    Who said that every wish would be heard
    and answered when wished on the morning star?
    Somebody thought of that and someone believed it.
    Look what it's done so far.
    What's so amazing that keeps us star gazing
    and what do we think we might see?
    Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection.
    The lovers, the dreamers and me.

    All of us under its spell. We know that it's probably magic.

    Have you been half asleep and have you heard voices?
    I've heard them calling my name.
    Is this the sweet sound that called the young sailors?
    The voice might be one and the same.
    I've heard it too many times to ignore it.
    It's something that I'm supposed to be.
    Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection.
    The lovers, the dreamers and me.
What's your theme song?

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Salutatorian

A story

Well, I saw her face between the cans of tomato soup and cream of mushroom.

There in aisle 3 of Cub Foods, long tendrils of brown hair softly framing her face, peering at the price tag, crouched down on her knees. She was holding a little girl’s hand, a tender little girl with blonde curls who had turned up her lips in a petulant frown. The girl was fidgeting, there in her pink flowered dress, trying to get away from her mother, who was fighting her high-heeled stilettos in an attempt to crouch down comfortably and get a look at the yellow-starred price.

I wiped my hands on my jeans and nonchalantly pushed my shopping cart down aisle 4, then swerved and came up aisle 3. I walked over to her as though I didn’t recognize her and said, “Here, ma’am, can I help you?” Knelt down beside her and read the sign, told her it was three for five today, a bargain.

“Oh, thank you,” she turned, her voice filled with relief, and I met her brown eyes again. A flicker of recognition and a wrinkle on her brow as she tried to place me, but couldn’t seem to remember how I knew her. She looked uneasy so I smiled again and said, “Well, Kathy, it’s been a long time.”

Her face cleared immediately. “Rob!” she said, her voice lighthearted and cheerful. “Fancy meeting you here!”

She got up and dusted off her skirt. I took in her outfit, appreciative as always of a woman who dressed well; today she had chosen a crisp white shirt with a flattering charcoal A-line skirt. No pantyhose, but smooth-shaven as always, and her skin smelled of strawberries. An anklet, silver, with a tiny charm, just before the black pumps, and she was the image of a working mother. Hair perfectly styled, as ever, fluffed up but soft, and her conditioner smelled like grapefruit. Garnier Nutrisse, I thought ironically; most probably she had kept to what was simple and what worked.

“How have you been?” I asked, always an inane sentence, and politely looked away as she struggled with the little girl who looked tired and bored and seemed about to begin whining.

“Oh, I’m good,” she said, struggling with her daughter. “This is my daughter, Doris,” and even as she said it I could see the glow come into her face and soften her features, a kind of motherly regard for the girl, and I envied her for a moment. “Doris, say hello,” but Doris hid behind her mother’s skirt and popped her thumb into her mouth, trying to avoid me and all unwelcome interruptions. Her mother absently smoothed her golden curls and I looked for the sign of a wedding band, but not finding one, decided I couldn’t ask.

She noticed my gaze. “Oh, Don and I don’t go in for all that traditional stuff,” she smiled, and I felt a stab of envy, a pang of jealousy of this Don, whoever he was, because he had Kathy and could make her glow. It wasn’t that I really loved Kathy, anymore, but you never forget your first love, even if you were in eighth grade in the time, and short and snotty and freckled-faced.

“And how are you?” she asked politely, eying my silvering hair and my worn black jeans. “You look fit.” I smiled at her in thanks for the compliment, tossed my hair wryly and wondered how to answer her.

Should I tell her about Evelyn? The divorce? The kids? How do I answer this question? I decided to play it safe. “I’m fine,” I said, then motioned to my cart, which held two packages of Swiss Miss chocolate pudding. “Buying junk food, you know, a night alone at home, just me and the television. Relaxing and all.”

She laughed, a tinkling sound. “Oh, I wish I had time for that!” she says happily. “But Doris here needs to be taken care of, so TV nights are rare, unless I’m up for watching Bambi and Aladdin live out their ever-so-fascinating lives.” She laughed again and met my eyes in a kind of private smile, sharing the joke. Doris chose to speak up at exactly this moment.

Mommy,” she whined, “I’m hungry. I wanna go home.”

Kathy smiled at me apologetically. “Well, it’s been great catching up with you, Rob,” she said, “but I think this young lady needs to get home.” She hoisted Doris into the seat, then began pushing the cart down the aisle. “Hey,” she turned and stared at me for a moment, “you live around here?”

What should I tell her? Tell her I do and probably be invited over for dinner, to face the shining perfect life of Kathy and Doris and her beloved Don? No, I didn’t want that.

“Nah, not really,” I say, “just stopping by.”

“Oh,” she says, and her face falls, like she’d really wanted to see me. “Well, if you’re ever in the area again, feel free to stop by- 93 West Park Lane, you know- not that I can promise anything fancy, you know. Probably just spaghetti and marinara sauce, and canned at that-“

“Spaghetti and marinara sauce sounds great,” I answer, “but I’m keeping you and I think Doris wants to get home.” I nod at Doris, who ducks her head in fright. Look back at Kathy, try to memorize her face, then let her be.

“All right, well you take care, Rob.”

“I will.”

I watch as she walks off, purposefully, her heels clicking against the tile of the store floor.

I look at the tomato sauce and wonder whether to buy it, if only to remind me of the encounter. “Damn,” I mutter under my breath and shake my head at my own sentimentality. It’s been a long time since I saw Kathy. Last time I saw her must have been senior year of high school, when she still wasn’t sure of herself and didn’t really think she’d ever grow into a beauty. I had known about that, how worried she was about her looks. I’d always wanted to tell her that I knew she’d be fine, that she’d turn out okay, that anyone as sweet and kind as she was bound to make it.

But the words of a seventeen-year old boy don’t amount to much, especially if he’s the one who’s had a crush on her since forever, but who never dared to speak about it, really, not since she broke it off in eighth grade before anything could ever start. He’d never asked her why she did that, figured it was probably because she wasn’t ready, and more importantly, she couldn’t have known how he’d worshipped her, loved her from a distance and wished he could soothe all her fears away.

I snap back to reality, head over to the freezer section. Reach for the frozen peas, my hand hovering over the vegetables. Hell, why bother? Reach for the bagel pizza instead, figure I’ll toss it in the toaster oven and eat it in front of the television. Why should it matter? I’ve got no one to please. Evelyn’s gone and the kids aren’t here for the weekend; there’s no reason to take care of myself, really. I can do what I like.

Wander through the rest of the supermarket, honing in on brightly colored signs that advertise sales or bargains, “three for the price of two,” oranges that cost 69 cents a pound! I absentmindedly reach for the oranges, then put them back and go for a crate of clementines. I don’t know who will eat all these clementines but it reminds me of when I was younger, a kid, growing up with my siblings and coming home to a crate of clementines on the kitchen table.

I think I’ll work out tonight, go running on the treadmill or maybe around the block, maybe even on the bike trail if I’m up for it. Kathy had noticed I’m fit; if there’s anything that describes me, it’d be that. I work myself, hard, as though doing that will make up for all the things I’ve failed at, not that they’re all my fault, necessarily. I don’t beat myself up about too many things anymore; I see that there’s no purpose in it. I let myself off the hook once in a while. It’s only when I want to remember that I bother to feel the loss, because that’s the only way I can really understand.

Go to the checkout and pay for my items; the saleslady sniffs disapprovingly as she sees my packages of Swiss Miss next to the clementines. “Chocolate topped orange wedges,” I say to her politely. “Party tonight. At my house. Don’t worry, it’s all very healthy.” She gives me a bit of a look, as though she thinks I’m slightly mad, and looks down at me, her dyed-blonde updo unable to conceal the dark brown roots. I almost want to make a comment about the futility of the pretense but hold myself back, refraining from giving vent to the desire to critique someone else. After all, this isn’t her fault. My life isn’t her fault.

I smile at her very nicely as I go to pack my bags, but a mentally retarded man is doing it for me. He gives me a big wide smile and I smile back. I’m always glad when I see these fellows at the supermarket; they so like to be useful and I like to make them feel happy. It’s nice to see people who actually need the job doing it. Not that I really mind college kids bagging groceries, but I figure they’re smart enough to get some other job, secretary maybe, so why not leave the bagging to the folks who really need it? I smile at the guy with Down’s Syndrome again and thank him and he insists on shaking my hand. I can’t walk out of this store without feeling a little happier, though I’m still dwelling on Kathy, my somewhat pleasant shock of the day.

It’s raining, dark already, and I head over to my Buick and pack the groceries in the trunk, loving the sound of the water as it hits the glass. I always feel calm when it’s raining, very in control. I lift each grocery bag into the trunk, one at a time, following a pattern, lift and thud as it hits the bottom of the trunk, then wheel the grocery cart back into its place. I could leave it in the middle of the parking lot but hate it when people do that; it’s so frustrating, especially given the wind outside. The carts move when the wind gusts and they come toward the cars, and even though they’re not really going to hit them, it’s a frightening experience for the drivers. So I move them back and wonder why more people can’t take the time to do that. Is is that they’re all in a rush? Probably. They’ve all got families to go home to.

Slide inside the car, arranging my torso and legs so that I fit into the car, electronically adjusting the seat and moving it back a little. Think I’ll turn on the radio and tap my fingers on the dashboard, feeling the thrum of the music, but decide against it. The rain’s enough for me. I look out at the dreary grey world and for some reason I feel alive, as though in contrast to the bleakness that overshadows the dark. I hear the trees rustle and the leaves in the wind and all that is music enough for me. I move my foot against the gas pedal in a kind of unfulfilled rhythm, drawing to a stop by red lights and racing the yellows, hoping to get home faster. Not that home has anything waiting for me, but it’s still a place to go against the dark.

Walk inside, toss my keys on the dining room table. I take pleasure in muddying the entrance rug, something that Evelyn hated. It’s not exactly that I enjoy spiting her; I just like being myself, having my own space again. I wish I could give a good reason for why Evelyn and I split up. It would make so much more sense if I could give one concise reason. But there was no affair, no form of infidelity, no dramatically differing goals. It wasn’t that I wanted to live in Indonesia and she was a Kansas hick. Nothing like that. We just drifted apart. It’s so much more subtle in life than in the movies.

Wouldn’t it be nice if life worked like a movie? I think philosophically as I pop the top off a beer. Sink into a chair and watch the rain storm down across my window, hitting the planks of wood on the porch. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were all those fights, those meaningful conversations, those blowups and finally one clear-cut reason for why we went our separate ways? But she couldn’t explain it if she tried, and I couldn’t either. Still, I wasn’t surprised when she asked for the divorce. We weren’t connecting. But then, had we ever?

It’s easier to take the blame on yourself. I realized that. It’s so much easier if you can find something, someone to blame. Reasons. We like reasons. Reasons are controllable; reasons make sense. Reasons help you understand why you’re a fuck-up when you are one. But sometimes it’s just not that simple. It made me feel better to blame myself for a while, claim that I hadn’t listened to her enough, hadn’t cared enough about her feelings, hadn’t been romantic enough, had stayed at work too late. But these were all excuses. It really wasn’t any of those things. It was just that I wasn’t there, not in any way that really mattered. But neither was she. And neither of us have the least damned idea why.

Head for the bathroom, take a long look in the mirror. I like what I see. My silvering hair makes me look distinguished. Hell, I look like one of those televangelists, one of those preachers you see on TV. You know the type. Strong, muscular, silvery hair, very distinguished, deep voice that tells you to listen, voice that sounds pretty authoritative and important. But I bet you never saw one of those TV preachers wearing a black leather jacket like I’ve got. Or my worn black jeans, or my scuffed up shoes. Nah.

I wet my hair in the sink, slap my cheeks as though to add some color. Look in the mirror again, then growl, shaking my head like a dog. Water flies everywhere, spotting the silvery glass. For some reason, I find this amusing. I give a laugh like a bear, a growl of sorts. Then out, throw my jacket on the sofa. Just wearing a t-shirt now, one of those soft ones of some grey sort of fabric. Throw myself back on the couch with the beer and noncommittally turn on the TV. Flip through the channels. Entertain myself by seeing how stupid the commercials are tonight. A Friday night and here I am, laughing at the TV and drinking a beer, and not feeling half bad about it.

Why should I feel bad, after all? It’s a life; it’s my life. I can do what I want with it. Who am I to care if society says I should be feeling bad about it? That my life is wasted? That I haven’t got a wife, a family, anything that supposedly matters? I’m content, for the moment. It’s pretty okay.

But that’s when Kathy swims before my eyes and I head back. Thinking about her and how she smelled today. Of strawberries. She always smelled of strawberries, always. Thinking back to me in eighth grade, that freckle-faced kid who was so shy, far too shy to ever tell a girl I liked her. But I loved Kathy. I always loved her. She was my first love and she probably knew it, just not the extent.

Kids can love pretty deeply. Most adults dismiss it. They claim it’s puppy love; they claim it doesn’t matter. Not true. Kids can really feel, far more than adults can feel, and far more deeply. Adults, you see, are desensitized. We get used to the world and its crap. Kids don’t yet know about that. Kids don’t have to pay income taxes, you see, or worry about money; they don’t have to try to explain long silences and figure out why their relationships are coming apart. All they’ve got is love and the ability to love pretty deeply, till they’re kicked and kicked again in the faces, and then like a whimpering dog they shake loose. And then they decide whether to trust again, and often they don’t, because why should they? They’ll just be kicked.

Ah, maybe I’m bitter. I swig the beer and throw back my head, some of the spray landing on the side of my mouth. Swipe at it with the back of my hand, dry it on my t-shirt. Kids. Well, I loved her. I loved her pretty deeply, loved her for all the reasons I can still remember loving her today. She was good and kind, always nice to everyone. She defended some of the losers in the class, I still remember. A bit of a goody two-shoes, always busy with her homework. She was one of the ones who wanted to make her parents proud. But then, we all did then. I did, too. They had such high hopes for me.

It makes me laugh, to look back on that now. Laugh to look at my life and look at what was predicted for me. Star student. High school salutatorian. Everyone always clapped me on the back and told me I’d made my parents proud. I was shining, always smiling from ear to ear. I thought it all meant something. To be honest, I still do. Wouldn’t trade those moments in for anything. The way my mother smiled at me, the way my dad kind of started to tear up but wouldn’t let himself go. They were really proud of me and it feels good for someone to be proud of you that way. Because you know you matter. You know you’ve done something right.

Tears me up to think of my mom right now. She’s in a nursing home. I put her there. She’s getting too old to live by herself, can’t do it. She fell and broke her hip and when I stopped by, later on, it seemed like she’d been living off of stuff in cans. Now, that’s okay when I do it, but she needs real food, good food, food with vitamins and junk. She can’t just live on cans of baked beans. So I was thinking assisted living, but she’s on pills and all. So I decided on the nursing home. I don’t really want to know what goes on there. If I knew, I don’t think I could stand it. I already can’t stand it.

Went to visit her last week. Saw her in the day-room with a bunch of highschoolers there for their community service visits. Saw her talking to one of the girls, a girl with light brown hair and blue eyes, not too tall, telling her about how she used to love turtle soup. The girl was looking at her animatedly and chattering happily about how turtle soup is a delicacy and so exciting. Then she pulled out these different hats and started putting them on the residents’ heads. You know, putting them on, like they’re playing dress up. Made me sick to my stomach. My mom, sitting there, just grinning foolishly while this girl put her hat on her head.

But I could tell that the girl didn’t mean any harm. Really, what she was doing was a good thing; it keeps them occupied. Gives them some kind of purpose. Far better than sitting and watching the television all day, getting into fits over the news, worrying about wars and talking about the political affairs of their day. No, the girl charms them out of all this. She dances around and entertains them. Puts on plays, performances. Gets them to play along with her. “Shirley, come on Shirley,” she wheedles. “For me?” Shirley nods, tells the girl that she’s “her golden-haired angel.” The girl smiles, her cheeks pink. I think it’s the saddest sight I’ve ever seen.

I want to take my mom out for lunch. I’ve cleared it with the resident, the nurse, signed her out and got her into the car. She looks at me confusedly, her eyes unsettled. She wears a powder-blue sweater. Why are old ladies always in sweaters? I hate the damn thing, but can’t tell her to take it off. What if she’s cold? And anyway, why should she have to take the sweater off just because I hate it? Get her into the car, start driving down the street. “Not the highway,” she says, her voice quavery, her thin white hair shining, translucent in the sunlight. “Not the highway, Rob.”

“We’re not on the highway, Mother,” I say, but obligingly slow my pace. She seems to sit up and stare about her a little more, a little longer. “So what do you do at the nursing home, Ma?” I say, hoping to make polite conversation. It takes a long time for her to answer. “Well, there’s the TV,” she says, her voice soft, hollow, “and there’s bingo.” Her face lights up when she says this. “I won once, Rob! I won Bingo.”

I can’t help it. My eyes fill with tears. I shake my head, press the gas pedal savagely. We jolt forward. “Rob!” she says, and I immediately stop. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean it. I just can’t deal with seeing her like this. Bingo, for chrissakes. Bingo.

I calm down. Drive carefully, trying not to upset her. We’ll have a nice lunch, her and me. Sit down, order the salad, the pizza, eat it politely, nicely. I take her to one of her favorite restaurants, but she doesn’t seem to recognize it. This is normal, I think to myself. This is what the doctor said would happen. I want to order something nice for her but it occurs to me that I don’t know what to get. This is what she always did, the ordering. She was the one who picked out what Dad and I should get. I just ate. It was always good.

I look at the menu. All the fancy dishes are in Italian. I don’t want to get her anything too spicy, anything that will upset her palate. Luckily, she’s not on a strict diet, so almost anything goes for these brief excursions. Except she’s not supposed to have too much salt. Seems like the older people get, the less salt they can have. I think it’s a good thing. It means they’ll be less pickled on the inside. If that makes sense. Which it probably doesn’t.

I figure we’ll go with pizza. We’ll be safe with pizza, right? Order the pizza, help butter a roll for her. Give it to her and notice that my hands are trembling. I don’t know why. Everything’s under control. She’s fine. I’m fine. There’s nothing to be upset about.

“So how’s Evelyn?” she asks sweetly, suddenly seeming lucid. I look carefully at her, wondering whether this mention was intentional, whether she meant to wound. I don’t think so.

“Evelyn…Evelyn’s great,” I lie, hoping that will satisfy her. I reach for my glass of lemon water, take a sip. The ice cubes clink against the inside of my cup.

“She is? Then why didn’t you bring her with you?”

I freeze. Don’t know how to reply to that one. “Um…well, she’s busy. Wasn’t the best of days, if you know what I mean. Work and all.” I hope it’ll pass as a suitably vague excuse. I try to think of a way to switch the subject. “So-bingo,” I say and the subject settles lamely on the tablecloth as I try to reinvigorate it, like a dying balloon in need of air. I need to inject it with something. “Who do you play against?”

“Oh, the other ladies,” she says, waving her hand vaguely as though that explains everything. I notice that her fingernails are polished, an odd orange color. “Hey, your nails!” I say in fake excitement. “Your nails are done! Who did those for you?”

She looks at them and her brow furrows, as though she wishes she could remember. “Oh. The girls, I think. The girls who came by.”

I watch a waitress walk by our table as I think back on the laughing blue-eyed girl. They’re the ones who paint my mom’s fingernails, now. One of the few things she can take pleasure in. I stare, dry-eyed, at the ugly painting on the wall, as though it can give me the answers.

“Well, they’re very nice,” I say, and turn my eyes away.

A silence. I wonder how to break it, what to talk about. Finally, it’s broken by our waitress, who comes over with our pizza. I take it with relish, breaking the slices apart in my hands, placing one cheese-laden piece on my mother’s china plate. She looks down at it, confused. I cut it for her, but her hand grips the fork, then loosens so that the fork clatters against the plate, its tines striking against the tablecloth. I look around surreptitiously to see if anyone has seen. I feel like there’s a neon sign over my head. Incompetent Son. Unable to take care of aged mother. Please advise.

I reach for the fork and begin to feed her. Slow, bite-sized pieces, placing them gently in her mouth, urging her to chew, to make the half-remembered motions. I feel closer to her than I have ever felt. Is this what it is like to truly love; must someone be dependant upon you before you can offer yourself up so totally?

I gently tuck a napkin into the collar of her shirt. A beautiful cream cloth napkin. And I feed her the bite-sized pieces of pizza and I feel like crying.

There are a couple of times where she looks at me and I feel like she remembers. That I’m her Rob, her son. And maybe she even remembers about Evelyn. And how we’re not together anymore. And the kids, and how she’s got custody. But I’m not sure of any of that. I just know that she’s my mom and I’d do my damndest to protect her. I don’t know what to protect her from, however. She’s got an invisible enemy, something I can’t kill.

I wish it could be easy. I wish I could see something, a fire-breathing dragon, something tangible, something real, and just make it go away. But that’s not how it works, anymore. Everything’s gotten complicated. And that’s part of growing up. And that’s life. And there’s something really beautiful to that. But it’s also frustrating, like now, because all I want to do is take away the vague look in her eyes and replace it with the knowledge that was always there.

But then I wonder- why do I want that? Is it just to make me feel better? Is it so that I know that someone cares about me, someone knows me? In which case, I want to help my mother to help myself. What a bastard.

I recall myself to the living room where I sit, sprawled out on the couch. It’s a Friday night but the TV is off; I’m drinking beer but I’m not happy, and the bottle has stuck to my hand. I ease off the couch and put it down on a coaster by the sideboard. I’m stuck, I think. It’s Friday night and I’m staring at a blank TV, thinking about my mother. How much more fucked up can you get?

It puts me in mind of the kids. They need to visit her. They need to visit their grandmother, the woman who made them sugar cookies, the woman who had them over to use her swimming pool, damn it. They need to know her. I need them to know her. I need them to care about her and see her and realize who she is.

But they’re kids and as kids they’re not going to like the smell of the nursing home; they’re not going to be polite and quiet but whimper and cry and say that it smells bad and why is Grandma so strange and why doesn’t she know them. And we can explain it all to them in advance but that won’t stop their questions and their questions embarrass me because I don’t know the answers either, and really, I don’t want to be there, either.

Evelyn will know how to handle it, though. She always does. Working mom, always impeccably dressed, always put together, tough, a lawyer. She’ll explain it to them. She’ll explain all about their Grandma and how she’s sick and how she’s still the Grandma they know and love, but the sickness makes her a little bit strange sometimes. And tell the kids they need to hug and kiss her anyway, because she’s still their Grandma and they still love her.

She never shows them her tender side. I wonder why. I hope it’s not my fault. I wonder sometimes whether I’ve bruised everyone too badly, whether nobody can feel anymore because I’ve taken it all from them. But then I tell myself that I’m giving myself too much credit, and there’s no one who’s really to blame there. I’m not the one who changed her, am I? She was only ever herself in the dark, after all. She’d come close to me and whisper to me in the dark, soft and tender and vulnerable, wearing white, a white tanktop and white panties, black hair cut to frame her face, wide eyes open and willing. But only ever in the dark.

And I’d take her then, softly and gently, as she wished it, and I would be good to her, because I would never want to hurt her. And I’d love my way across her body and scatter kisses on her stomach and her breasts and trail them up to her face until I reached her lips and softly, softly I would love her until we would sleep, nestled together or turned apart, but satisfied.

So what happened? When did we drift apart? When did it start, that we were two strangers in a room, caught in the same place but not part of the same family? When did that disconnect begin? I wish I could pinpoint a date, an argument, but I don’t know when it started. I don’t know what caused it. We just seemed to drift. Farther and farther away until our goals did not align, until she was one way and I was another and it seemed that I was sucking the life out of her, but that’s not how I wanted it; I would never have wished for it to be that way. And then she asked for a divorce, her hair perfectly combed, and told me she would fight me for the kids and I didn’t want to fight her and handed them over because I knew even then that she would make a better mother than I would make a dad.

I don’t know how I ended up this way, and that’s the perfect truth. What went wrong? What did I do wrong? I was a shining star, a perfect example of everything that everyone wanted to be. Salutatorian. Good grades, good friends, nice girlfriend, not the kind of guy to ever get into too much trouble. A little pot, some alcohol, maybe smoked a bit with the guys, but nothing serious. Nothing that makes me deserve to end up here, in this wasted stage of my life, going nowhere fast.

What do I want? What do I want to be doing? If I had a goal, maybe it could all come clear. Do I want to turn my life around? And if I did, what would I say? I want to be a good father to my kids, even if they only see me on weekends. I want to help care for my mom. I want to be there for the people who need me. But I think, more than that, I want people to need me. I scare myself pretty badly sometimes when I think that nobody knows I exist anymore.

I had dreams once. I know I did. They come before me, flutter in front of my eyes. I wanted to be great at something. I wanted to change the world. I had a dream of me with a golden trophy, something I had won and deserved to be proud of. Or a better dream of me curing cancer. Doing something grand and noble for the world. But then I got married and changed my dream, because it was something simpler and nobler and more important- just to have a family. And we did that for a while, but then I failed at it. And we drifted apart and now here I am, middle of my life, not knowing what I want or how to get at it, looking back in the mirror at all my forgotten dreams.

Memories are bittersweet. They’re linked to happier times. It’s not that I’m not happy now. I am happy. I’ve got nothing to complain about really. I’ve got a nice house. A nice life. I can afford to do a lot of things. I’ve got kids and they’re pretty decent as kids go. I can entertain myself, afford to go to the movies or maybe even something highbrow, if I’m in the mood. The reason I go usually isn’t to see the show. It’s just to be among people. To be part of the audience.

I’m realizing now how much I took for granted. The easy relationship I had with people, the way they flowed in and out of my life. That easy camaraderie, where I could just slap someone on the back and he would grin right back up at me. School, the bane of our existence. School was great. We hated it but it was great. Because it put us all together again, a group of kids who were ready for life and living, looking at the world and everything that we wanted to do. We had such grand dreams. I’m really glad for the people who fulfilled their dreams. I really am.

I just wish, sometimes, that I could have been one of them.

But this is stupid. I don’t need all this self-pity. Better go sober up; it looks like the dawn’s approaching. Spent the whole of Friday night wallowing in memories. Best go take a shower. Face the new day.

Get into the shower, the hot water hissing against the walls, steam rising up and bathing me in sweat. Take the soap, thick and yellow, and lather under each arm. Close my eyes and douse myself in the water, wanting to get clean. Find the Head and Shoulders shampoo, pour some into my hands and begin lathering my scalp, my fingers digging beneath my hair, water sluicing off my shoulders. I sing for a bit, a tuneless sound that makes me feel happier, refreshed. Turn the water off, enjoy the first shiver of cold. Towel off, shaking my head in every direction so the water splatters the mirror. Towel dry my hair so it stands up straight, stand in front of the mirror, naked, and begin my shaving routine. In the middle, shaving cream covering half my face, I hear the phone ring. Wrap my towel around my waist- strange this acquired sense of modesty, when no one’s home- and go downstairs to answer it.


Evelyn’s voice, crisp and assertive. “Rob. I was hoping you were home. There’s been an accident. Katie fell and broke her wrist. I’m taking her to the hospital.”

A wave of concern passes over me. “Is she okay? Is she going to be all right?”

“She’s fine. I need you to take Marion for the day. You know, just take care of her, play with her, make it a special Daddy-daughter day. She’ll probably need to stay the night. I’ll be busy with Katie and then I’ll need to catch up on work.”

“Do you want me to take Katie to the hospital for you…?”

“No, I’ll be fine. Just take Marion for the day, please.”

“Okay, great. I’ll come pick her up—“

“No, I’ll drop her off by you. It’s on the way. See you in ten minutes.”

The phone goes dead. I look at it, blinking back the water in my eyelashes, seeing myself through an outsider’s eyes, dripping wet on the living room rug, my hair uncombed and a side of my face covered in shaving cream. I burst out laughing, though there’s nothing particularly funny about this. Go back upstairs, hurriedly finish shaving and change into a comfortable pair of t-shirt and jeans. Blowdry my hair quickly, so that it’s damp instead of sopping, then pad down the stairs and make myself a cup of coffee. I’m standing in the kitchen when I hear the doorbell ring.

Open the door to see Evelyn in her crisp, pressed, business attire, holding Marion’s hand. “Hey sweetie,” I say, a big smile on my face. “How are you?” I toss her up in the air and she giggles nervously, looking back over her shoulder. “Daddy,” she babbles, “Katie fell of the monkey bars and hurt her wrist and Dr. Lauren splinted it with newspapers and now she has to go to the hospital and Mommy had to buckle her in because she can’t even move her arm; it hurts so much” but I stop her as I swing her up over my shoulder and give her a kiss on the cheek.

“It’ll be fine,” I mouth to Evelyn, who gives a strained smile and heads back to the car, her heels clicking nervously against the cement. An unwanted image comes to mind as I compare Kathy in the supermarket, her easy smile of genuine warmth and Evelyn, everything so strained, so controlled. I leave her be and turn my attention to Marion.

We have a wonderful day. I make her breakfast (hot cocoa and Rice Krispies) and take her for a walk, chasing the autumn leaves and frolicking in the park. I play ball with her; I push her on the swings; I dance around the park with her and otherwise act happy and goofy. A great bubble of warmth wells up in me, a love for this precious child who is partly mine, who I created and helped to form. I want her life to be better than mine. I want to give her the world and would, were it only in my power.

After a reassuring phone call from the hospital during which Marion got to speak to Katie, she snuggles up against me in her teddy-bear pajamas and begs me to read her a story. I read her a fairy tale, telling her about a princess in her castle. “You’re my prince, Daddy,” she says, and I blink quickly to hold back the tears. “I love you,” I say and snuggle her closer, kissing her fine hair, playing my hand over her neck and stroking her shoulders. She is mine, mine, my child, the one thing I have done right in my life.

“Daddy,” she says, looking up at me with her round blue eyes, “we have a show and tell day on Friday and I’d really like to tell about you. About the things you did when you were little and the things you do now, what you like to do and stuff.” She looks at me hopefully. “Could you write it down for me, Daddy? Could you write it down so Mommy can read it to me and I’ll remember so I can tell the teacher?”

I look at her and I feel a pang of remorse; a sob catches in my throat. What do I tell her? Do I tell her that I still fantasize about the girl I loved in eighth grade? That I fear and resent my own mother because she is so far from me, that I have placed her within a nursing home and cannot forgive her for playing Bingo? That I have done nothing with my life but pushed everyone away from me? That my idea of a good time is staying at home on Friday night and drinking beer, lost in memories?

“Sure,” I say softly, quietly. “Sure I’ll write you something about me.”

I put her to bed, tucking her quietly underneath the blankets, making sure her teddy-bear is close to her. Then I sit down at my desk and begin to write.

I’ll write you my life, Marion.
The life I never had
but wanted.


Credits: Same Old Lang Syne