Saturday, November 28, 2009

Disorders and holidays

I think a lot of kids have, or former kids had, some sort of disorder, an irrational fear or something resembling OCD that may have required magical thinking or magical acts to keep the evil at bay.

I was afraid of the kinds of elevators that had gates so you could see the shaft. My school building was 13 stories tall so I did take them, but I stood near the back. Elevators stopping between floors still scare me. Elevators dropping a floor or two, forget it. (I guess I carried the elevator thing somewhat into adulthood.)

I also had a few about swimming. At the bungalow colony where we stayed, there was a very nice pool, but I was terrified of the drains. There were hockey-puck-sized indentations in the floor of the shallow water and one in the deep water (which was 8 or 10 or 12 feet, not much more), which may have been plugs, but I wasn't too sure so I avoided them. The monster was that big black hole at the side of the pool, I can't really remember if it was one or two of them, in the middle section or the deep water, and I have no idea if they were drains or if they filled the pool, but they were large and black and scary. I was terrified of them, no matter how many people I saw casually hanging out by them with no problem. If I was playing a game with friends, I had a real problem if I had to be stationed by one.

Also, there was a weird pool at one of the day camps we went to, Floradan. (Was it Floradan or Floridan?) It was filled with water diverted from some stream or lake, so it entered at one end and exited at another. I think the deeper end had a cemented bottom and sides, but not the shallow end. But there were *things* in that water, I knew it;the tiny snails that climbed the cemented sides were proof. I don't know if I'd already seen The African Queen or if some dopey kid just said, "I heard someone got bit by a leech here once," but I was not getting into that damn pool. This, by the way, is the pool where Donny Most was a lifeguard, his nose permanently coated in bright white zinc oxide.

I sometime get antsy about the ocean, not just our lovely local Brighton and Coney, but even the beautiful ocean in the Caribbean, though for different reasons. (Barry and I have been to Puerto Rico twice, and spent our honeymoon in Aruba.) Locally, you can never stop worry about medical waste and other weird garbage, though I've personally seen very little. But even the "good" ocean has jellyfish and sea urchins and stuff. Didn't stop me, tho. Being shoulder-deep in salt water just plain feels too good. I don't get out in nature that much, and being in the ocean really gets to me; there's a certain amazement that conquers the fear.

I'm thinking about me now, but I guess this topic came up for me because I was lucky enough to see my nephew Walter yesterday. Walter is six now, and I find myself charmed by the fact that he has opinions, likes and dislikes, a sense of humor and a very friendly personality. He also reminds me a lot of my brother, and that's a really rare thing for me, since the last person born in our family was my brother, forty-two years earlier. I look at this kid, and I just *know* he's related to me, he has my little brother's mouth from when he was a kid, we're just somehow, at least in part, made of the same stuff. (This happened to me once before, when I met a first cousin of my father's who lived in Mexico City; he and me dad were both maybe in their late 50s. It was incredibly obvious to me that Fievy was related to dad, even with his Yiddish-Mexican accent.)

We actually got the whole family together yesterday, with the exception of my uncle Howard, my dad's brother. His wife Tina's mother is 92 and in a retirement community, so I expect they will spent holidays with her for the time being. The big deal is that my brother and sister-in-law and Walter came in from Rhode Island. No one makes the trip too often and things are a little rough between my brother and my dad. Our family is slightly odd in that my stepmother is Catholic rather than Jewish (which is what the rest of us are), and her sister is a nun. She's not a habit-wearing nun and in fact refers to habits as "penguin outfits," but I really like about her is that she lives in a spiritual and practical manner: she wants to see kids educated and fed and women in the priesthood. She has a master's degree which is more than I ever got. plus, and it's a huge plus, she's not judgmental about other peoples' faith or lack of faith or how they worship or don't. All I have to try to remember is not to curse. Now what's even more interesting is that she has lived with another sister from her order for many years, and the other sister's family is not very nice, so she spend the holidays with us, too, and is as much a part of the family as anyone else. The sisters are kind of like a couple but if they are, I'm almost positive they're celibate. They're in that weird space where they obey the Pope, even if they don't agree with him. And by the way, the second sister has a Ph.D., and I've always thought she looks somewhat like Vanessa Redgrave.

Anyway, the sisters live in Bay Ridge, so they've been driving us out to Long Island for Thanksgiving for a number of years now. I'm getting to look forward to our annual dose of quality time.

The other thing that's happened in my family, since my father was never very observant and was not surrounded by observant family, is that the Christian stuff started tin "win." Christmas started immediately, if Passover and Easter were too close, Easter won, etc. (There were also things like "PassEaster." It involved Jewish stars on dyed eggs. It involved gefilte fish and ham.)

Today's Yiddish lesson: gefilte fish. This literally means "stuffed fish." A few kinds of fish, usually carp, whitefish, and pike, are ground, and a few things are added like onion and matzo meal (ground matzo). It's made into balls and poached in fish stock. It's usually served cold. It used to be stuffed back into the fish skin, but I think everybody decided it was too gross. When it's cold, the broth is kind of jellied, so you have the jellied broth and the cold poached fish balls, often served with some matzoh, a slice of carrot, and a dollop of horseradish. (Sublesson: the Yiddish word for horseradish is chrain, using that "Bach" sound on the "ch.")

Anyway, I was very glad to marry into a family where there were a lot of observant Jews and where there was a real Seder and a real Succoh, and I could learn some more Yiddish words. My mother was from a generation that was very "modern" and "American," and Yiddish was something her mother and grandmother spoke -- in fact, my great-grandmother, who came over from Austria, spoke no English -- and so it wasn't spoke in my home. My mother used it with my grandmother when she talked about something she didn't want "the kids" to hear. So it was used against us, not taught to us. Talk about your lost folkways!

But my new family -- I had my mother-in-law until two years ago, my father-in-law until a year ago, and Barry's brother, who died young at 56, 6 years ago -- had a lot more Yiddishkeit ("Jewish-ism") going on than I was used to. Even my mother's kosher parents, when they had big Seders, never did the after-dinner part. I really wanted a religious wedding to Barry, even if it was reform, but he had had a religious marriage to wife #1, and even if they hadn't taken it to seriously, I thought it only right to have a get, which is a religious divorce. I went with him and it was rather awesome, a whole row of rabbis, one writing Hebrew with a feather quill pen.

Another thing that was lucky for me was that my husband had a last name that was easily identified as a Jewish name. My maiden name...let's say it was hard to spell, didn't seem to indicate a particular nationality, was a source of ridicule in school, and was way the hell back in the alphabet. Since my sister-in-law was brave enough to take it on, I figured 42 years was long enough to deal with it, and I took my husband's very easy, very Jewish name. It's true that I use my maiden name as a middle name when I do certain types of writing projects, because I was known by that maiden name, but I often do without it. It's fewer letters and has better alphabetical placement.

Listen, I don't mean to be any more insecure than I've already revealed myself to be, but I haven't had a single comment on this blog and it's really freaking me out. I know of one person who's subscribed to this, and I seem to be too big an idiot to install a counter on this thing, and I don't known if I'm getting read. It would just be nice to know. Not that I'm going to stop one way or another, but I'm curious.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Why I dislike the "holiday season."

Well, it certainly has provided a lot of imagery with which I unfortunately compared my family (that would be Thanksgiving). My mother did a pretty good job of making things warm and making people feel welcome, which was less the case with my father and stepmother. Coordinating such a big meal made my stepmother crazy, so they started getting it catered, and finally settled on eating in a restaurant. They live way out in the 'burbs so we generally get a lift with my stepmother's sister and her roommate, who are nuns. They're fairly cool and liberal nuns; we just have to remember to watch the cursing.

This year, my brother, sister-in-law, and perfect-nephew-Walter are making the trip from Rhode Island. Of course, once I got over the many, many bones I had to pick with my father, my brother found a brand-new one, a recovered memory that I don't share. So I'm enjoying my time in the sun as the Good Kid, which doesn't happen too often. My brother will also be a good kid tomorrow, for bringing Walter.

So you may have noticed that I have both orthodox Jews and Catholics in my extended family. I, however, am a Jew. That's how I was raised. I was always told: No, we can't have a Christmas tree, we're Jewish.

And that pretty much wraps it up: Christmas is a Christian holiday, not an American one, and please do not assume that I am going to celebrate it. (And by the way, why do Jews need to use personal or vacation days to take off the holiest days of their year, and Christians always just get it off?) Christmas trees are very nice, but they're not my traditions. (I like a menorah, but it's tough with cats.)

People feel sorry for me if I have nothing to do on Christmas.

And of course, this is before we get to the heavy commercialization and marketing and "black Friday doorbusters." I tried to do Christmas for a handful of years, with my father and his wife and sister-in-law, and it seemed to be so much about the gifts, and such a huge expense to boot.

Don't like Christmas music. Don't like that Bob Dylan did a Christmas album, don't like that at all, but I am a rare 51-year-old Dylan hater. If I *have* to listen to Christmas music, I'll take Nat King Cole and Mel Torme.

Did I complain about the sweets yet? I am no longer working in an office, but the last time I worked in one, this time of year was a FUCKING BITCH to be a diabetic.

My ugly counter seems to have stopped working. Where the hell can I get a counter for this blog?

Monday, November 16, 2009

hey, someone's actually reading this!

I installed a counter several days ago because this blog has not yet had one comment, and I was beginning to wonder, though I know one person who is "following" me on Blogger. Maybe there's some way to do this other than installing a counter, I mean to track visitors, but I'm a little behind the curve in certain things. I could only find one counter, and it's really ugly. Sorry about that.

But -- in the past few days, the counter went from 200-something to 400-something, so thanks for stopping in.

My best friend turned fifty on Friday, and her husband threw a surprise party (this all happened to me last year -- I'm a year older). My husband wasn't feeling well, but he didn't feel right about my taking that long trip alone on the subway. (It's a haul from north-of-Coney: three trains there, two home, due to a peculiarity of our beloved subway system. Door-to-door, about an hour and a half.) He said I should take a car service both ways, and I said no, and he said then just take one home, and I said no. Getting out the door is always the hardest part, and this was something I had to get out the door for. I'm very sentimental, I guess, about birthdays and special occasions and being with my besties. I've had three friendships temporarily break, and maybe permanently diminish, when I wasn't invited to weddings. I couldn't imagine getting married without certain of my friends there, and one couple came from Puerto Rico to be with us. And some people really dragged ass to be with me on my 50th last year, and some couldn't seem to get on a subway from Manhattan.

Anyway, it was very few people, maybe 10, as their apartment is not huge, and Robin was totally surprised, and Ernie did a totally awesome job of putting it all together and cooking his specialties with his friend Cynthia. (Spanish language lesson coming.) There was pernil (roast pork) and pasteles (mashed yuca, a root vegetable, or plantain, studded with pork and vegetables and steamed in paper or a corn husk), and yellow rice and beans. And a heap of appetizers. My husband and I went there for Christmas last year, even if Ernie (and half of their son Evan) is the only one of the Christmas persuasion, and this is exactly what he made. Much more interesting than a turkey. A lot of the people there were Robin's past and present co-workers (she's a book graphics person, I don't really know what you call it, and they all know each other), a couple of old friends of Ernie's, and Naomi and Shimon. Naomi was Robin's sort-of stepmother for many years; that is, she was Robin's father's girlfriend for quite a while. So Naomi stayed close with everyone, even after she and Jerry broke up. She married Shimon about five years ago.

Now, I met her in summer camp in 1971, though we did spend some time out of touch, and it's one of those miracles that we're still so close. Just about a year ago, my father-in-law and her father died in the same week, and I was at both funerals. I mean, I *knew* her father, for a lot of years, and I couldn't not be there. She has one other friend as close who lives in California and I have one who is glued to way-out-in-New-Jersey with two smallish kids (I think she did something wild like gave birth at 47 and 51). But, you know, it's me and her, for the most part.

Also: I got my amazing wonderful birthday present yesterday, a few days early. It's something I've been wanting for a while: a ukulele, tenor, definitely beginner level but a pretty one. In fact, cute as all get-out. But I'm getting tiredish now and will tell more later.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

the new rock stars

We were watching an old "American Experience" on disc today, about John Dillinger, and like all historical documentaries -- all of the ones on "American Experience," for sure -- since "The Civil War," it's done Ken Burns-style, which means a lot of period photographs, mournful fiddle music by Jay Unger and/or Matt Glaser, and talking-head experts. About half of the talking heads are generally historians (the others being descendants, friends, experts in certain fields, etc.). Anyway, we're watching the Dillinger one today, and one of the talking heads was an old friend, Claire Potter, who was a grad student when I worked at the History Department at NYU. She's a professor at Wesleyan now, which is where I should have gone (but that's another story). So I dropped her an e-mail, saying, "Isn't it cool that historians are becoming rock stars?" This started me thinking about historian trading cards, and that the first one I would want would be Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Now that reminds me of an interesting bit from my two-year career in publishing. Through one of my authors, I found myself in a room when one of the folks was Justin Theroux, who had just directed his first movie and was talking about how glad he was to get Tom Wilkinson for it. (Good taste. I love Tom Wilkinson.) He was then talking about how he had been on a trading card, when he was one the TV show "Alias." He seemed to find it kind of funny. I told him that I once bought an action figure, from a "Jurassic Park" set, because it was a Jeff Goldblum action hero. He found that funny, too.

My husband's nephew, when he was a young teen, was reeeally into wrestling; he was also being raised in an orthodox home, albeit modern orthodox. (My husband and his brother were not raised orthodox, but his brother married an orthodox woman.) So one birthday, we bought him an action figure of Goldberg, a wrestler whose actual name is Steve Goldberg. Maybe I just think all Jewish action figures are funny.

I did hear, though, that some Hassidic Jews, the ultra-orthodox in the long coats and sidecurls (pais, for those of you who need your daily Yiddish lesson), do have rabbi trading cards. For real.

Back to history -- I worked at the NYU History Department as a secretary, when such things still existed, from around 1983-1985. My friend Evan had told me that if you worked there full-time, you could get nine free credits of tuition each term, which was what he was doing. Evan worked in the department of Spanish and Portuguese, so we were in the same building.

OK, for anyone who is kinda young -- it used to be that people like college professors had someone to type their paperwork for them. If a professor was giving an exam, or wrote out a syllabus, a "secretary" would type it for him or her, and make photocopies. Oh, and the typing would be done on an electric typewriter, generally an IBM Selectric, where you would have to switch out a little golf-ball-sized thingie for a different one to change the font.

A couple of forward-thinking and high-ranking (read: well-paid) professors bought themselves some of them newfangled home computers. The guy who seemed to know best bought himself a Kaypro, so the other few faculty members did, too. I didn't think too much of it, except that now we didn't have to type for those few professors. But then, magically, someone anonymously gave the department a big fistful of money to buy our own copier (at the time, we were sharing with two other floors' worth of departments) and a computer and printer!

You have to understand: unlike the Law School (where I served the greater portion of my NYU time), the History Department didn't exactly have a lot of wealthy alumni. A successful historian is a college professor like Claire, or some kind of researcher or archivist or teacher. A successful NYU lawyer is a Supreme Court Justice or a partner in a huge New York law firm or an elected official. So we had relatively shabby digs, which was perfect for me, because the students were relatively shabby, and I was relatively shabby, and we all got along pretty well. My trademark garment at the time was an oversized camouflage jumpsuit overdyed purple, and I got teased at my going-away party that I wouldn't be able to wear my jumpsuit at the School of Law, implying that it was a snootier, more formal place. (I mean, they actually had their own building!)

So this money to buy the copier and computer and printer was manna from heaven. The copier I remember was a desktop job and we still needed to use the communal machine for big runs. But what I remember, of course, was the computer, *my* first computer, the first one I ever got my hands on. This was one of the best things about working academic for so many years: besides the awesome benefits, I always got my hands on new technology fairly early in the game. Not techie-level early and I never learned to program or write html, but I did get on a personal computer when the operating system was CP/M and the actual computer was sort of like one of those kids' record players that folds up like a little suitcase. It had a tiny little monochrome screen, green on black, and you had to put in one enormous floppy disc to load the program you wanted to run and another enormous floppy disc to access or save your file.

Rather than opting for a dot matrix printer, we got whatever you called the other kind -- like a giant typewriter as loud as a jackhammer, even with the sound shield on. But it looked like real typing.

The thing that I was also thinking today -- the place where I was heading before the many sidetracks -- was that when I worked there, with all of those fantastic faculty and students, I had no interest in history at all. I had some really good history teachers in grade and high school, but the love of history never stuck. But the last ten years or so, I'm *very* interested in it. I have a few books "on deck" that are simply histories of the impact of one commodity: bananas, clay, wood, cotton. There are all kinds of cool subtopics and eras that are fascinating. For instance, I had no idea that Claire was into this stuff -- I actually didn't know her specialty or dissertation topic.

Were any of you lucky and smart enough to major in history? what was your field?

My B.A. (deep breath) is in Interdisciplinary Studies from the Gallatin School at NYU. It was the Gallatin Division when I graduated, and though the program may have changed since I was there, it went like this: you could take courses from any part of the university, as long as your adviser signed off on it. In this way, you could design a program that interested you. But you were also required to do a lot of classics, from a list that included various Shakespeare plays, the Bible, Greek philosophy, Homer...the usual suspects. At the end of all of this, you make up a bibliography which is half from the required classics and half from your other courses, and get yourself ready to talk about this all with your adviser and two other professors for two hours. This is called the "oral exam." I actually passed my orals "with distinction," but there was no way no to be nervous beforehand. I had to be responsible for knowing, I think it was 28 books. And since I did my studies in two stretches -- 1984-86 and 1987-93, more or less -- I hadn't actually read some of those books in a while.

In the earlier stint, I took writing courses, and a couple of interesting lit courses in Gallatin. I particularly remember one that my adviser taught, about autobiographical literature. We read things like Thomas Merton and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. When I went back to school, I took a course in the Religion Department on mythology, and became a raving Jungian, and took a lot of my "great books" courses, in which I wrote mostly Jungian literary analyses. I was a little obsessed.

I did have a great education at NYU, but I wish now I'd given my experience more breadth. Actually, now that I remember it, I had registered for a European history class, and gone a couple of times -- it was good, and hard -- but then Gallatin called me and said they'd miscounted my credits, that I had enough to graduate. So I did drop the class, because the work/school combo for the last two years was really rough. I took a lot of graduate-level courses and wrote long papers. Plus I was still making a lot of AA meetings at that time. Those last two years of college? NO SEX. at least not with other people.

This, and this alone, I think, accounts for the Really Bad Relationship I got into not long after graduating. That hung me up for most of a year.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Stiffed by Maria Muldaur at Folk City

In the early 80s, I worked a Friday night shift at Folk City, a club on West 3rd Street in Manhattan devoted entirely to folk music. Let me say that again: devoted entirely to folk music. Such things once existed in New York City. Loudon Wainwright was dating the woman who made sandwiches in the kitchen and Lynn Samuels hosted the open-mike night. I can't remember how I got the gig, but it was perfect: I worked a low-paying entry-level day job at the corporate public relations division of a big ad agency (terrible job, but it's where I learned to write a press release), and I had this Friday night gig where I could hear great music and come away with around $35, which back then was plenty of money to entertain myself over the weekend. Plus it was an easy job. The house didn't care as long as every patron bought their required two drinks, so after that, you could either relax or hustle for more tips. We got $7 shift pay, and depending on who was playing, we could earn some decent tips. We also got two free drinks per shift, and all of the delicious cinnamon-flavored coffee we could drink.

So Maria Muldaur was playing one night, and this was a pretty big booking for the club. One of the managers took me aside and asked if I'd like to be Maria's personal assistant for the night. This involved getting drinks and sodas for Maria and the band, guarding the dressing room door and announcing visitors. The manager explained that I wouldn't get shift pay but that Maria would pay me a big tip at the end of the night.

It wasn't a hard night -- in fact, it was very pleasant, and Maria was very pleasant, and her bandmates were very pleasant. Except that she didn't pay me that big tip at the end of the evening. I was kind of panicky -- at 22 or so, I was not terribly assertive, and figured this had to be part of her deal with the club, so I went to the manager, who basically said, "too bad." So the other waitresses made piles and piles of money that night, and I went home without a dime.

One of the other waitresses said that Maria was recently "born-again" and that "born-agains" didn't believe in tipping. I still don't know if that's true.

Nonetheless, I just wrote a glowing review of her new album for Blues Revue. It's really, really good. She can still sing her ass off, and I guess I got by without that big tip 27 years ago or whatever.

I used to see George Gerdes at Folk City a lot, before he gave up music for acting, though he still plays once in a blue moon. I used to love Andy Breckman and one day when he played, David Letterman was in the audience -- this might have been when he was still on in the mornings. I also met Dave van Ronk at the bar there, with Frank Christian, and Frank and I went to Dave's apartment, where Dave charmed me by playing some folk records (from Romania? Bulgaria?) that he said he'd played for Paul Simon, and there were those Simon & Garfunkel-type harmonies, right there.

I would never have left Folk City except that they changed up the schedule on me and gave me a night that I couldn't work because of my day job. Apparently my Friday night shift was one of the "good" ones and they wanted to give it to a more full-time waitress. Otherwise, I would have stayed on there forever.