Saturday, October 31, 2015

Bowling Alone in America

Our garbage cans meet for hours at a time,
at the bottom of our driveways,
they chat about the weather and about
the kids,
we, on the other hand, so rarely meet,
winter is too cold and summer too hot.

We've lived on our cul-de-sac for years,
two, three times a week, our garbage cans meet,
eye to eye, they inquire, admire,
observe a frown or a smile,
our garbage cans meet for long stretches of time,
alas, we so rarely.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Into the Night

How did the boys coax me into their little prank? It was easy. I was the only girl not invited to Louise Alpern's sleepover. On that summer evening with the fragrance of lilacs in the air, my task was to knock on the door, get Louise to open up for me, and then step aside.  They'd do the rest - bombard the girls with water balloons. My little ping in the grand symphony was to simply knock on the door and step aside.

Later, Louise's mother would be livid, as the water had stained her carpeting, and Louise would demand to know how I dared do such a thing.

Water balloons were a huge part of our lives that summer. In assembly line fashion, we filled them, knotted them, and lobbed them at each other or at innocent passers by.  Late afternoons, we'd take pleasure in climbing up on a cement embankment and releasing our plump balloons down onto grocery shoppers rolling their carts out to the parking lot.

That evening after the boys had finished water ballooning Louise's hallway, they decided to go on a bike ride and asked me to come along.  I wasn't a tomboy, but I wasn't a sissy girl either - I'd spent time with my dad when he delivered his orders to the Mom and Pops. I'd seen him hoisting 100 pound sacks of rock salt up onto his shoulder and lifting fifty pound sacks of Jack Frost sugar without  a wince.  He'd give me something light to carry in from the truck. In imitation, I'd hoist it up on my shoulder and carry it across the entry.

I had inherited a super fine bike from my Uncle which had been lodged in my grandparent's basement for twenty years. I'd found it covered in dust and cobwebs, but I'd oiled it and polished it back to health. It had a wide open handle bar. It was made of heavier metal than modern bikes, but it was a racer.

So I took off with the boys, all five of them. I'd never ridden beyond the neighborhood. The sky was the shiny black of olives coated in oil, its darkness  interrupted only by a crescent moon. We rode past the grassy curves of Scheneley Park and up the hill to the Panther Hollow Bridge, guarded by the statues of two stone panthers. I was pumping hard, but not really sweating. A light wind blew against my cheeks.  We passed Phipps Conservatory and rode on into Oakland. At last, we headed back through the parks towards home. All the while, I kept pace with the boys.

There was one boy in the pack, a lanky Irish kid with freckles. He and his twin brother had been adopted by a Jewish woman whose husband had died.  When he was relaxing, he rode without holding onto the handle bar; for him it was like treading water. I tried imitating him, taking one hand off the bar, and then for a fleeting second, taking both hands off. He rode along side me for a while and we talked.  Then he'd go back to riding up ahead. My heart was open, and that evening I fell in love.

When I got back home, it was about 9:30. The little kids were still up as it was summer.  My mother scolded me for coming home late.  I'd told her that I was going on a bike ride, but hadn't given details.  It was my job to bathe the four little kids.  I remember hauling them into the tub, dreamily running the washcloth over them, and finally wrapping them in a towel one by one.

I had a pink diary with a little lock.  Later that night, I listed all the boys who had been on the bike ride and I wrote a few sentences about the lanky Irish kid.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

A Call From Aunt Becky

I often ask myself why my mother ever told me about the call that she received one winter morning from Aunt Becky.  Aunt Becky wasn't actually my aunt, she was Bonnie's mother. Bonnie was my friend who lived across the street.  I'd known her since I was four years old. We'd played jacks together on her wooden bedroom floor. I'd wait for her while she practiced the piano, and I'd wait for her while she finished dipping her last Nabisco wafer into her glass of milk, so that we could walk to kindergarten together. Now Bonnie and I were in fifth grade.

Aunt Becky said that she didn't know if she should actually tell my mother about it, but then she felt that it would be better if she did. The girls had been over at Bonnie's yesterday and she'd overheard  them talking about me. Actually, they were discussing a number of girls, and when they came to me, they decided that they didn't want me in their club. And she'd overheard one girl say, "Oow, she picks her nose."

Why, my mother felt compelled to tell me about her conversation with Aunt Becky, I'll never know.  But she delivered a word by word replay.  I shriveled into a ball when I heard. I knew that I picked my nose, but somehow I didn't quite realize that other people noticed. When I was little my Grandma Josie used to say, " Joanie, what are you digging for, gold?"  But that was kind of a joke, and besides I knew how much my Grandma loved me.

Well now the awful truth was out - even my Mother knew, though I suppose she too had known before on some level. Now what?  I was so shamed that I literally stopped my "secret" habit on the spot. But the damage had already been done. I would not be a member of their club and there was more to come.

I still don't know why Aunt Becky felt compelled to call my mother and report the whole sordid tale. And I still can't quite forgive my mother for spilling it all out to me that winter morning.

Monday, August 3, 2015

"Take Her to Saks."

If I hadn't been rejected by the girls at school, I might never have decided to enter a Bible Contest and spend hours, weeks, months and years studying selected books of the Bible. The grand prize was a trip to Israel. Each year there were different books to study. One year it was Genesis, Deuteronomy, Judges, Kings I, and Ezra.  The next it was  Exodus, Numbers, Samuel I, Jonah, and Hosea. I entered  three years in a row and eventually made it to the finals in New York.

With four little kids running around at home, it was impossible to concentrate, so I'd often trudge over to the temple to study. Temple Sinai was a private mansion which had been converted into a House of Worship. I'd found an attic room where I could be alone. In winter, I'd pull on my boots. Gazing up at the icy branches and  the forlorn sky, I'd wend my way over there. In spring, I'd practically skip along the sidewalks past the house with the velvet lawn and onward to the Temple gates. It became my refuge.

I felt the Bible stories deeply. There was Joseph who'd been thrown into a pit out of sheer jealousy. His brothers hated him because he was their father's favorite.  At the last minute, instead of leaving him to die, they sold him into slavery.  They dipped his Coat of Many Colors into the blood of a goat, so that their father would believe that Joseph had been killed by wild animals. Who could imagine?

Having won at the State level, my mom, and I flew off to New York for the Nationals along with Pauline Ostroff, the principal of our religious school. Pauline was a small parrot-like woman with an auburn beehive hairdo, very fluttery and self-important. She wore expensive suits and shoes. Sometimes she quizzed me in my attic cove, but she never took much interest in me. Basically, she didn't know me from borscht. She was a perfectionist and could be very picky. Maybe I shouldn't have blamed her. Her husband was suffering from Parkinson's and she was his sole caregiver.

That evening, the three of us went down to dinner at the hotel restaurant. When the waiter placed the bill on the table, it lay there like an unwanted baby in a basket. It was obvious to me that Pauline expected my mom to pick up the tab.
"Pauline probably thinks we're loaded," my mother told me back in our room. "She probably expects me to treat her all weekend. But I told her right away, 'Look Pauline, I want you to know that Jake has to work hard for every penny and we have a house full of little kids.'"

Our wealth or lack of it was unclear to me. We lived in a white brick house, "the only newly built house on the block," my mother was always quick to point out. My grandfather had built it. He lived in one half with his new wife and their children, and we lived in the other half. My dad was in business for himself because no one could work with my tyrannical grandfather. My dad worked hard and was extremely frugal.  I didn't know if we were rich or poor. I knew my parents acted as if we were poor.

The morning of the contest I woke up early; my right foot was shaking uncontrollably.  I simply could not comprehend why my foot would not stop shaking. It was impossible to eat a thing. Finally, we made it out the door and grabbed a cab to the building on Park Avenue. I calmed down a bit during the written exam; the orals would be that afternoon.

Blanche Bauman, my mom's second cousin, happened to be visiting New York from Beverley Hills at  the time and offered to come by to lend her support. My parents had met her when my dad was stationed in California during the war and my mom had tagged along as his new bride.  When Blanche arrived, all heads turned.  Blanche strolled in, crossed her long legs and gave the judges her full attention. That day, I managed to come in Third - no trip to Israel, no second place cash prize. I was disheartened, but at least the pressure was off.

After the contest, Blanche said to my Mom, "Jean, why didn't you dress her up more?"  I was wearing a black cotton suit with a little white blouse.  "If you'd dressed her up more, the judges may have taken more notice of her."

The next day, my mom confessed to Blanche that we'd traipsed around all afternoon, but couldn't find a thing for my upcoming Confirmation party. "What's the problem, Jean?" Blanche replied, "Take her to Saks."

For whatever reason, Blanche's words touched a chord in me. Blanche, in her silk dress and patent heels, was a woman who showed me something.  I never saw Blanche again, but she had advocated for me and had opened a certain door.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Stork Dropped Us

That night we slept over at the home of distant cousins, Shifra and Alfred Appel. By then our luggage had been found and delivered. Shifra was not sure that she wanted us sticking around for long. Patty sensing her reticence, suggested that we her give her the Nina Ricci perfume that had been bestowed upon us by Air France as "first class passengers".  After receiving our token gift, Shifra  mellowed out a bit, but not much.

She woke us up at 6:00 am the next morning. The Israeli sun was already creeping through our curtains. "If you're gonna find a kibbutz that will take you girls in, you'd better hit the downtown offices first thing in the morning." she said.

The first kibbutznick flatly refused us."There's no way that we can take responsibility for a 14 year old girl." he said tersely. We were sent on our way. We traipsed from one office to the next that morning - all sang the same tune.

Finally, I remembered a youth movement from when I'd been in Haifa three years ago - It was left leaning, Shomar Hatsair - The Young Guardians.  When we presented ourselves, the burly man behind the desk said, "Okay. Even a girl of 14 can work."

They put us on a bus headed for Ashkelon and told the Egged driver to let us off at the road to Sde Yoav.  It was a brand new kibbutz and the driver had never heard of it - but they told him that it was cross the road from Kibbutz Negba which had been around forever.

We didn't have excessive luggage, but it was still a schlep from where the driver left us off to the entrance of Sde Yoav. We trudged down one long dusty road. We were greeted with little formality and immediately put to work.  Our job was to remove rocks from a big open field that was needed for seeding.

Neither of us were sissy kids; I for one, had worked with my father for years lifting and hoisting and my sister was willing to give it a go.  We set to work in the heat of the day with a few other volunteers. Our sole task was to bend down, pick up rocks of varied configurations, and heave them into a huge pile. As I bent over for maybe the twenty-seventh time, I remember having the distinct feeling that a stork had opened his beak and dropped us down on this God forsaken plot of earth.

We toiled away that day and the next - By the third day, watery boils were sprouting on our arms and it was agreed that we each had a case of sunstroke. Our crew leader said, "Listen to me, you sisters, both of you, go to the Dining Hall and make yourself useful over there."

Our work in the Dining Hall was heaven compared to where we'd been.  They taught us to mop floors with their Israeli mops which were sticks with rags over them, way different from our string mops back home. We peeled potatoes sitting on overturned plastic tubs out on the back porch. We refilled salt shakers, placing a little rice in the bottom of each shaker so that the salt wouldn't harden up.

This all went on for about ten days when my sister began to get restless. I'd stayed with an Israeli family in Haifa as an exchange student in 64'. Patty phoned them and asked if she could come for a visit. They agreed to a few days.

"I've had enough of this drudgery," Patty complained, "I've gotta move, I've gotta see what's going on. I'm headed out. I'll take a bus from the top of the road."
"Come on, you can't just go wandering around the country, all on your own." I argued.
"Yes, I can," she replied.
 Before I could say more, she'd set off up the dusty road.

Some days later, it could have been a week, I was out in the fields picking peaches with the others. A soft breeze blew through the nearby willows and the sun was strident, but not overly so. Gazing up, I saw Patty on the horizon. She appeared off in the distance, a silhouette, something like a woman from the days of Abraham carrying an urn on her head. As she drew closer, I saw that she was wearing a new dusty blue tank top, on her feet were a pair of bonafide Israeli sandals. She returned victorious and in high spirits. I couldn't help feeling a tinge of envy.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015


We'd traveled to Israel via Air France and had been unexpectedly upgraded to first class on the second leg of the journey.  But they'd lost our luggage. Our first morning in Israel was spent wandering around in search of a bathing suit, so that we could hit the beach and not waste one precious moment of our time in the Promised Land.

Neither of us had ever worn a two piece before, but that's what we tried on in the crowded hovel of a Tel Aviv shop.  We each squeezed behind the curtain of a tiny make shift dressing room.  My two piece was orange, remarkably the color of an orange.  As I was cupping myself into the top, the shop owner came in to check on how I was doing.  He started feeling me up, inserting one breast at a time into the top and then fastening me from behind.  I tried to shoo him out, but he was taking his good ole time -  He then proceeded to do the same to Patty. We were rattled, things like this did not happen where we came from.

We paid the bill, stayed in our suits, wrapped a little something around us and descended upon the beach.  The sky was blue, but the sun had not yet exploded into its raging self. The water was cool as we waded in. We took a deep breath and whooped with joy. We were alive and at last in Eretz Israel.

That afternoon, we took a bus headed for the Egged Central bus station. A lot was happening - drying off, shaking out the sand, exchanging money, finding directions, getting on and off buses. When we finally sank down into our seats, I began digging in my purse. I soon realized that I'd lost my wallet, with all our money. We hadn't bothered about travelers' checks. I felt that sinking feeling in my gut. Who was I anyway to think I could shepherd around a 14 year old little sister?

People around us realized that something was wrong - there we were two American girls, arms flailing.  One man advised us to continue on to the Central Bus Station and inquire at the Lost and Found.  Lo and behold, by some miracle, a kind soul had turned in my wallet with all those American dollars.  I let out a moan.  I wanted to reward the kind soul in some way. But the Egged clerk informed me that this was not necessary - if I wished, I could put a donation in the charity box and call it a day.

I still think of this kind soul who turned in my wallet - Surely there is goodness, and I had felt it keenly that day.

The Threat

Yes, we were what you'd call free range kids back in the 60's way before the phrase came into usage. I was 20, my baby sister who wasn't much of a baby anymore was 14.  I had transferred to Boston U. in my Junior year to be near Steve.  It was early summer, when I picked Patty up at Logan Airport. She seemed to waft off the plane.

I took her to my apartment in Allston. Later when we were wandering around the neighborhood, an innocent flyer publicizing a trip to Israel caught our eye.  We were two sisters looking for adventure and love. My relationship with Steve was having its ups and downs.

We phoned home that evening and proposed the scheme to our parents - For some not to be understood even to this day reason, my frugal father said, "Yes, you two girls can go."

The first thing that we did was go to a downtown Boston department store to buy short shorts. We knew that Israelis in no way wore Bermuda shorts. Somehow, we got our shots and they must have expedited my sister getting a passport.

The days were drawing closer to our departure, but I was having second thoughts.  Things had shifted with Steve; I wanted to stay close to his side.  But Patty was adamant. "If you don't go with me, forget about having anything to do with me for the rest of your life," she said in a voice that brought a blade to my heart. For some reason, I believed her.

At that point, Patty left my place and went to stay with Tom and Rose.  Tom and Rose were high school friends of Steve's who'd motorcycled from St. Louis to Boston. They'd found an a rickety apartment in Roxbury where Tom painted and Rose went out to earn money as a nude model.  Into macrobiotics, a bowl of brown rice and a pair of chopsticks were always in view and you'd hear Vivaldi as you stepped through the door.

Rose must have been the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen with deep brown eyes, long straight hair, features even and smooth - Tom was short with wire rimmed glasses and very clever.

This was where Patty stayed while I tried to sort myself out. For a while, there were two camps: Steve and me on one side of the Jordan and Patty, Tom, and Rose on the other. We kept a distance. But in the end, I knew that Steve would be going back home to St. Louis for the summer. I'd lived in Israel at age 17 as an exchange student. I  knew that I'd been my most spunky self at that time, maybe it could happen again.  So with some reluctance, I agreed to undertake the journey with my kid sister.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A New Bride

     At 24, I was a new bride having married on the rebound.  We'd moved into a shabby apartment, not on the good side of town. Venetian blinds covered the windows. Later I purchased some ready made curtains at Sears and replaced the blinds, but the curtains were too short for the length of the windows and they always looked like a kid in hand-me-downs.

    Reading was my main reprieve.  I escaped into novels such as The Eiger Sanction by Trevanian and The Guns of Naverone by Alister MacLean.  Somewhere in those stories, I read about a zen monk who had patiently raked up a huge heap of leaves, it had taken him hours, when an easterly wind sprang up and in an instant scattered the leaves to the four corners of the monastery garden.  It was at that moment, that the monk became enlightened. 

     This story stayed with me for years. I thought of it in moments of desperation when all my best efforts seemed to come to naught. The becoming enlightened part was not really part of the mix.

     It was in the first three months of marriage, back in the early seventies when I got my first inkling of the much bantered around word - "Karma" - what goes around, comes around.  My new husband had a choice to make - whether to attend his Grandfather's funeral in Pittsburgh where we lived or to attend his friend's wedding in St. Louis where he'd been asked to be the best man. He chose the later. 
Didn't matter that his grandfather was a pillar of the Jewish community, that he'd been a decent guy into his nineties, didn't seem to matter.

     We set out for St Louis in our brown VW wagon on the Thursday morning of Thanksgiving. I had a job teaching seventh graders on the South Side and I was more than ready for some down time. I remember taking along my sewing basket and some material, patterns and pins. 

     Arriving in St. Louis, we were greeted and fed a snack - We would save the Thanksgiving feast for Friday when we could all sit down and enjoy it together.  That evening, I heard a tip-tapping sound coming from the kitchen; it was the unmistakeable sound of cockroaches tip-tapping on the tin foil which covered the turkey left on the stove.

     Back home, as I was unpacking, I noticed that a couple roaches boldly waltzed out of my sewing basket. They colonized. Our apartment became infested with them. Our red haired landlady refused to pay for an exterminator. Somehow we learned to live with them.

     One Sunday afternoon, I was cleaning the apartment. Orderliness was important to me, not so to him. My new husband often took himself off on trips with his friend, Bill. They chased trains all over the state, shot photos of them coming around a bend. 

     On the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet, we had stashed away the plastic bride and groom from off top the wedding cake.  Giving the top shelf a cleaning swipe of the rag that day, I managed to scatter a half dozen roaches from the folds of the plastic bride and groom.

     I stayed in that marriage for nineteen long years.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Incantatory, mythic, psychological -  flying

Wounds inflicted on succeeding generations from the murder of Macon's father's by Whites
Pilate carves out independent life style - 3 generations of women under one roof
Spoiling Hagar
Women who love too much
Growing tired of a woman and "tossing her aside like a wad of gum that loses its flavor"
Incompatibility of married couple - Ruth and Macon
Visitations with the Dead - Pilate with her father and Ruth's trips to her father's graveyard
Knowing your people
tyrannical father
racial retribution
striving for independence - gold
finding those who you feel comfortable with - akin to-
bildungs roman
importance of friendship

Work of Ethnography - finding roots: unknown Michigan town, Dansville, PA, Shalimar, VA

Brueghel Icarus - opening scene introduces panorama of characters and themes: Guitar, Ruth pregnant with Milkshake,  2 sisters - discrimination at the hospital, suicide/flying (means of freedom and escape

Characters:  Milkshake, Macon Dead, Ruth, Corinthians, Magdelaine, Guitar, Pilate, Reba, Hagar.

Importance of names -

Favorite scenes:
*fight on porch of general store in Shalimar
* hunting scene where Guitar tries to strangle Milkshake who loses breath and almost dies
* Hagar's death - pre-death shopping spree - selling diamond ring for Hagar - white standard of beauty
*Guitar and Milkman visit Pilate for the first time - soft-boiled egg, picking                                                                                                                    
 raspberries off the branch, Milkshake falls in love with Hagar, story of the earring, the way the women eat, sing, description of the house.

*Corinthians spreads herself across the hood of Porter's car.
* Milkshake meets Circe and then undertakes mythic trip to cave - sheds the suit and shoes, vestiges of his pampered life                          
*Danville with the Pastor
*Sweet - love scene, washing each other in the tub
*Hagar tries to kill Milkshake at Guitar's place - Guitar's talk with Hagar about her self worth
* Guitar tells about the Seven Days group
*Lena reprimands Milkshake for ruining things for Corinthian
*Pilate shows up at the police station and gets Milkshake and Guitar released with                                                              
 her story.
*Ambiguous ending
*Death of Macon's father, Jake - shot five feet in the air off wire fence where he'd sat trying to save his land.
*Children in circle sing of Solomon who flew back to Africa
*Milkshake punches father and pushes him into radiator                      

Who is the hero of the book?  Is Milkshake a hero or an antihero and at what point does he become

Is Pilate the heroine?

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Return of Milkshake

     A concrete stairwell, somewhat like a bunker is where I met Andy.  He was just finishing up at 420 Evaluations where he worked as a Cannabis doctor from 11am to 7 pm four days a week. He bounded down one flight of the stairwell, reached the landing, while I was climbing up step by step from the street - we met somewhere in the middle. In my arms, I was cradling his beloved dog, Milkshake, who had been "stolen" from him sometime over the weekend.

    Andy's stepdad and I had driven from Hollywood to Carpenteria that very day on the 405 to rescue Milkshake. Truth be told, he'd not been stolen.  He'd been picked up by a Carpenteria Compliance Officer who seems to have found Milkshake tied to a lamp post outside of a restaurant. Officer Lopez had gone into the restaurant and found the dog's owner - Andy -and given him his card.  Andy had been out of compliance with town ordinances.

     Andy reached out and grabbed Milkshake from my arms. He collapsed onto the concrete step in his dark dress trousers and gathered Milkshake up to his cheek, kissing her over and over. Tears of anguish and relief filled his eyes. "Milkshake, my love," he moaned, kissing her white patched face one more time.

     His fervor and intensity hollowed me out - a thirty-five year old man, my son, contorted in his embrace of a tiny dog.

     It was in September three years ago that I began to connect the dots. Andy had gone delusional. A graduate of Albany Medical College, he'd done two years of a surgery residency at UCI - then a one year research spot in Tucson, when one fine day, I got a call from him after a four hour long surgery on his left hand due to a lab accident, a call that marked the end of the world as I knew it.

    "Swear that you won't tell anyone, not even God, not even God, " he said to me in a hoarse whisper.

     That was the beginning of the 10,000 delusional stories that I'd hear morphing from one shape to the next over the course of the following three years.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Four Magic Beans

He sold the family cow for four magic beans.
And his mother said, "Jack, how could you?"

But Jack, you've never told us why,
And we've been wondering all this time -
What were those four magic beans?"


Beyond all blessings,
beyonds all songs,
beyond all praises,
beyond all consolations,
is there one thing?
could there be one thing
more important than anything else?

"Who am I?"
"Why am I here?"
you ask -
eternal imponderables,

There is an answer
not found in words,
beyond all blessings,
songs, praises, consolations.

More beautiful than anything
visible, audible,
smelled, tasted,
waiting to be felt
with each breath.

Then the heart dances.