Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Alberghetti and Her Spaghetti

My family is on a spaghetti kick this week. Some of us are loving it with garlic butter and cheese and others of us are totally into spaghetti with meat sauce. None of these dishes are especially gourmet. They are more what Alice B. Toklas termed, "nursery food," than epicurean delights.

There I was at my stove, browning meat for sauce yet again, when I thought of a television commercial from back in the 1970's, when I was a teen. This woman appears on the screen, someone I've never seen before, and she's wearing an apron. The frame shows her standing there in the kitchen, apparently getting ready to cook her brains out. She announces herself with some alliteration: "Hello, I'm Anna Maria Alberghetti and I'm here to talk to you about spaghetti sauce."

Every single time this commercial came before my television-saturated baby-boomer eyes, I was puzzled, but not too puzzled, ready to accept anything the family television wished to air on my behalf. I registered this unknown face and thought, "Who the Hell is Anna Maria Alberghetti and what do I care about her spaghetti?"

It never occurred to me to ask my mother, who would have known. But like I said, I didn't much care. Today though, when I remembered Ms. Alberghetti, I remembered the truism that GIYF (Google is your friend) and hastened to my PC to see what I could dig up. It seemed like a fun thing to do.

I was surprised that youtube doesn't carry a clip of that particular commercial, though I did find this one that shows Ms. Alberghetti advertising a different product, right at the end of this collection of dated, nostalgia-engendering commercials. So, I bombed out trying to find that particular spot that jogged my memory in the first place, but I did find lots of other material about the singer/actress.

Anna Maria Alberghetti (b. 1936) was a child prodigy born in Italy. Her father was an opera singer and concert master and her mother was a concert pianist. Anna Maria , according to Wikipedia, sang onstage in Rhodes with a 100 piece orchestra when she was six and had a debut at Carnegie Hall when she was 13. She won a Tony Award for Best Actress in Carnival in 1962. She appeared on Ed Sullivan more than 50 times. She married Claudio Guzman, a television producer and director, had a couple of daughters, and divorced.

Then she kind of faded away until she reappeared in those Good Seasons Salad Dressing commercials in the 1970's. I had remembered that the commercial was about spaghetti, but it must have been about the accompanying salad's dressing of choice. It seems this advertising campaign was geared to housewives who would have remembered Anna Maria from her glory days, because she'd all but faded from the consciousness of anyone else by the time those commercials were aired.

I still think this ad campaign was a bit misguided. It's one thing to have Joe Namath advertise pantyhose . Everyone knows Joe Namath, right??

Come to think of it, my kids have never heard of him. Hmmmm. But he was in the public conscious at the time he made that commercial, and Anna Maria had well nigh fallen off the radar by the time of that late lamented (okay, so not so lamented) Good Seasons promotion.

It's kind of hard for me to grok why they chose her, other than the obvious associations: Italian name, looks, and home-cooked Italian food. I didn't know her from Adam. I kept thinking: Saturday Night Light should spoof this.

I did find one more piece of information that kind of tickled my imagination: "The tragedy of World War II forced the Alberghettis from their homeland... "

"Hey?" I wondered. "What's up with that?"

Can you feel my brain ticking, thinking: is it possible?? Was Anna Maria Jewish??

She wasn't. But in 1992, the ADL (Anti-Defamation League) co-sponsored a two-day conference with NIAF (National Italian American Foundation) entitled, "Italians and Jews: Rescue and Aid during the Holocaust." The event was held at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Beverly Hills. Anna Maria was honored with an award and spoke of her memories from her childhood in Italy during the war.

She told the crowd that her aunt was shot by the SS and her father, who had trained many Jewish cantors, was arrested by Il Duce's Fascists. After her speech, she accepted a silver coin that commemorated the 500th anniversary of Columbus' famed voyage of 1492. According to the account I read of this event, this was the only time anyone from either the NIAF side or the ADL side made mention of this obvious connection between the two groups.

Maybe I couldn't connect Anna Maria with that spaghetti, but as it turns out, Anna Maria had no problem making the connection to me and my people. I salute you, Anna Maria Alberghetti AND your spaghetti.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Plural Thinking

In the era of love and peace, A/K/A, the sixties, everyone talked astrology. It was big.

Astrology made its way into pop culture via the musical Hair (Age of Aquarius), people nixed lovers based on astral predictions of incompatibility, and folks slurped up their daily newspaper horoscopes for a hefty dose of narcissism.

Some of us said, "We know it's not real, but it's fun," while others paid close attention and planned their calendars and love lives in accordance with the printed word.

But the appeal of astrology and horoscopes have faded quite a bit and don't figure quite so large in our everyday lives. Of course, like every other truth, this is more or less true, depending on individuals, with some people still enthralled with the idea that the stars have the power to invest their lives with meaning. I'm not one of them.

I am, however, very involved with the idea that my sign, Gemini, is a true reflection of my personality. I've noticed that my Gemini friends tend to feel the same way: that there is something about this astrological sign that makes Geminis proud to own up as members of the tribe. We feel special. Anointed, even.

I don't want to delve into the roots of astrology, but would like to give an overview of my personal beliefs on the topic. Astrology has Jewish lineage, since its roots are in the Jewish Sefer Yetzira (Book of Creation). But observant Jews are wary of astrology as a guiding force because of the biblical precedent: "Do not act on the basis of auspicious times" (Leviticus 19:26).

It's like this: God could, in theory, paint a picture in the stars of future events, but depending on any one particular picture would be foolish, since God could change the sky at any moment and even from minute to minute. God could make the stars look one way, but make things play out in an altogether different manner. Sky-pictures can be tests of faith.

The test: Do we base our actions according to a chimera in the sky, or do we do we examine each moment and act according to what is right or wrong at a given moment according to our code of ethics?

On the other hand, we can use the idea of the astrological signs for personal insight and for the purpose of perfecting ourselves. For instance, Scorpio is consumed with the idea of sex and death. Scorpios have the nature of murderers, but, on channeling their instincts, might become butchers or surgeons. I feel very comfortable with the idea that my sign says reams about me and that this knowledge can help me become a better person.

About ten years ago, some women I knew took a course on astrology from a Jewish perspective. The teacher was a French woman, the daughter of a rabbi who had achieved some renown in this field of study. The all-women students were taught how to make astrological charts and give readings. My friends were eager to practice their skills and asked me and my husband if they could be allowed to do our charts.

When I was shown my chart, I was told that it was very rare in that it depicted a perfect Magen David, the Star of David. Wow. I looked at my chart, and sure enough, there was a perfect Jewish star holding pride of place. The women consulted their teacher who said that this was a rare occurrence and signified that I was a special person. Who wouldn't love hearing that stuff? I just ate it up.

But things got even more interesting when my husband's chart came out a perfect triangle. I watched the women pointing to the three points of the triangle as they mumbled and nodded. One of them explained, "Your husband is inflexible. He goes from point A, to point B, to point C with no digression. EVER!" The woman used her finger to punctuate each fixed point.

Furthermore, other women jumped in to explain, his bullish ways were bound to butt into my fuller, more rounded character on a continual basis ensuring regular collisions in the form of marital spats. Five faces turned to me in curiosity, yearning (drooling) for confirmation. I kept a poker face. "Interesting," I said.

I know, I know: I shouldn't disappoint people like that. But it's a Gemini urge to always dissemble. And above all, I am a died-in-the-wool Gemini. Nyuk.

In actual fact, those women weren't really surprising me much. When Dov and I were dating, and I discovered he was a Virgo, a part of me thought, "Yikes. Virgos and Geminis are incompatible," but I dismissed the idea as retro, 60's thinking. I registered but didn't place too much stock in the idea.

I don't plan for this to be a reveal-all blog entry, but suffice it to say that while Dov and I could never stand in for Ward and June Cleaver, our 30th anniversary is only two months away. If I had counted on astral predictions, I never would have married the guy, but somehow, we're making it work.

A friend once shared with me something she read in a Jewish book on astrology. The book was in French (are you seeing a pattern yet?), so she translated for my sake. This tome commented on the fact that out of all the astrological signs, only Virgo and Gemini are represented by human figures, whereas the others are animals, elements, or objects.

The idea that Virgo and Gemini are the only signs represented by people has a Jewish significance. Virgo is associated with the Hebrew month of Elul, in which the High Holidays begin, a traditional time of repentance. Only people have the ability to repent.

Gemini is associated with the Hebrew month of Sivan, in which the Torah was given to the Jewish people, as commemorated by Shavuos (Shavuot), the Festival of Weeks, which occurs in Sivan. One of the reasons that Gemini is represented by twins is because this is the time that the twin tablets of the Ten Commandments were given to the Jewish people and God became tied to His Chosen. Only people can observe the commandments.

So, there you have it: Sivan and Elul are of special importance to people. But why, then, should their associated signs be incompatible? I would be interested to hear from my readers any ideas they might have on the subject. Maybe my Jewish star as it appears on my chart is a kind of hint? My Virgo husband goes in one unerring direction, while I have two triangles in two opposite directions?

Another friend (not French this time, but maybe in training?), showed me that she had a book, not a Jewish book, that spoke about the negative aspects of the astrological signs. A Gemini herself, she told me that Geminis were the sign most likely to end up behind bars. She showed me the cover of the book, which was decorated with the astrological signs depicted according to their worst characteristics. The Twins were shown in jail-stripes.

I didn't read the book, but I'm guessing this has to do with the fact that Geminis are impulsive and mercurial (a good word to describe a sign that is associated with the planet Mercury). I could have said, "Geminis are 'supposed to be' impulsive and mercurial," but I totally buy into the idea that these personality traits are real. I see them in every Gemini I know. I don't see these traits in other people.

Geminis tend to attract other Geminis for friends, though relationships aren't calm and smooth. Geminis are creative, they write, they're musicians--they love to perform. But to me, the main thing about Geminis is that they are changeable. They are like two people rolled into one and you never know which one you're gonna get. Geminis are honest, but color the truth to make it more palatable or to get what they want. Geminis HATE boredom and are always flitting from thing to thing in an effort to stay engaged, but all too often find themselves in hyper-focus over the inconsequential. Geminis talk too much and then find they are hurt too easily. We are immature and volatile. We lack discretion and prudence. But we're witty, fun, and humorous.

Are Geminis double your pleasure, double the fun? Or are we double-trouble? Leave a comment below. Both of me are waiting to hear from you ;-)

Bled Dry

Has anyone noticed my long absence from this blog? I sincerely hope so. It would be nice to know I've got people waiting--nay hanging--on my every word. Ha!

This month has been a killer. Though my company agreed to the bid I submitted as a lowered compromise fee per article, I discovered that I still wouldn't receive enough articles at this price to make this month's rent. And so, I lowered my sights and agreed to take half of my former fee for a guaranteed 100 assignments; the exact number of articles that would cover a month's rent at that rate.

This meant that whereas I used to write a maximum of 75 articles a month and had enough to cover rent plus two utilities, I scrambled to push out more content than ever before and only just covered rent. Well, I'm glad to have a job, and I did manage to get my articles in 10 days early, a kind of miracle, but I am thoroughly burned out.

Yesterday, I found myself in a stupor of sorts. I felt pressure to produce something, ANYTHING, now that my assignments were handed in and I could write about whatever I liked to my heart's content. I could use this time to write something for the freelance market, work on one of my books in progress, write something for a contest, or just blab on my blog. But nothing came to me. I felt bled dry.

It felt like the fibro-fog I'm always writing about for my job. I tried and failed to get my mind moving. I reviewed ideas and rejected them, one after the other, and finally gave in to the fog completely.

I got a great deal of housework done and decided I deserved some mindless fun on Facebook playing Pathwords and Bejeweled Blitz. I made two friends and lost another. Isn't it interesting how fast that works on Facebook?? I wound up the evening by watching Al Pacino in Scarface, hoping to generate some passionate emotion that would end up here, having taken form and achieved new heights of linguistic prowess, a kind of word apotheosis. But no. Nothing came to me. A big zilch.

However, today is another day and ideas are beginning to peep: "Write about me! No, write about ME!" like so many broken twigs trying to rearrange themselves back into a semblance of hope holding potential for productivity.

I am now trying to sift through the possibilities and settle on something. This entry is really about nothing at all except the process. Housework is easy: you see the task in front of you and so you set about completing your work with as much industry as you can muster. But writing? Ah. There's the rub. It just doesn't work that way with writing. Writing comes from within.

I will adjust to this new schedule, I feel certain. Maybe I will have to have a burnout day every month on completion of my assignments? It could very well be that yesterday was not a wasted day--that the brain-fog I experienced is also a part of the process. Or, maybe I just need a period of adjustment to my new job situation. I will try to be patient and wait for clarity.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Itchy Brain

Twice this week, I had a song I couldn't get out of my mind. On Monday, I started humming the Mamas & The Papas, "Monday, Monday," and that's all well and good—it's a terrific, classic song, but the fact that I found myself still singing the same song on Wednesday? That's just not normal.

Finally, I got Monday, Monday out of my head--it was 1 PM on Wednesday--and then for no reason whatsoever, I got a really vile sucky song stuck in my head, looping and looping until I thought I'd gone clear out of my mind.

I mentioned it to Dov, my husband, and he said, "Don't you dare hum it," which made things even worse.That song got louder and louder and at last, I could suppress the urge no more and burst into song,

"OoowI think I love you.
OOOOHhhhhhhhhhhhhWI think I LOVE YOU!
So what am I so afraid of?
I'm afraid that I'm not sure of…"

Dov said, "That does it," came over to me, picked up my tonic water with a wedge of lime which I had just so lovingly prepared for myself and drank half of it down in one gulp.

But really, why is that horrible song stuck in my head? I can picture David Cassidy's feathered do swinging around his face, grooving in his tight shiny polyester bell bottoms and shirt unbuttoned down to there, undulating his uvula to underscore the lines:

"I'm sleeping,
And right in the middle of a good dream…"

EEK. Make it stop!!!

So, I did what I always do when there's something I don't know or understand. I hie myself over to Google. I entered the following term: "Why can't I get that song out of my head?"

I was thinking: Some psychologist must have thought about using this as a topic for getting a research grant. Sure enough, there it was: "'Brain itch' keeps songs in the head."

A Professor James Kellaris of the University of Cincinatti College of Business Administration had discovered that certain songs get stuck in our heads because they create something he calls a "brain itch." The itch can only be scratched by repeating the same tune again and again. There's even a German term for this kind of song. It's called an "ohrwurm," an earworm.

The type of song that tends to repeat in your mind has an upbeat melody and repetitious lyrics that quiver on the line between infectious and irritating. Professor Kellaris explains that the cognitive itch is caused by properties in compositions that can be likened to histamines for the brain. Kellaris mentioned two songs that can have this effect: the Baha Men's, "Who Let the Dogs Out," and the Village People's "YMCA."

"The only way to scratch a cognitive itch is to repeat the offending melody in our minds," says Kellaris. "Across surveys I found that from 97% to 99% of the population is susceptible to earworms at some time."

Jingle writers are known to use these repetitive "hooks" in their music to wedge an advertising message into the malleable flesh of unwitting brains. One such writer, Chris Smith, mentioned that some of the greatest musicians suffered from such earworms. Smith relates that Mozart's children would infuriate him by playing bits and pieces of tunes or scales on the piano that was situated below his rooms, but leave off the endings. "He would have to rush down and complete the scale because he couldn't bear to listen to an unresolved scale," says Smith.

Mozart understood that the only cure for an earworm is completing the song by singing or playing it through to its end. I guess that in my case, this means I will have to suffer through a YouTube performance of the Partridge Family singing, "I think I Love You." God save me.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Viewing Pleasure or Perversion?

For the first several years of my marriage, we didn't own a television. When we got a yen to watch the boob tube, we'd go hang out with our next door neighbors; close friends of ours who were happy to have us over. We'd have our little TV fix and that would be that for a couple of weeks or months.

Then, in the early 1980's, we moved to a new neighborhood where we didn't really know anybody. I was bored and lonely. Dov found a used television set and brought it home for peanuts.

There wasn't much on in those days. We didn't have cable and Israel had only one station at that time, though we did have a second channel, courtesy of Jordan TV. There were some old American shows on at that time, so that we had about three programs we watched on a regular basis. We had three kids at that time, a four year old, a two year old, and an infant. They enjoyed watching some of the educational children's programming in the afternoons.

Then, in 1984, we became pioneers and moved to a settlement in the Judean Hills. We duly brought our television set with us, but at some point during our second year there, there was a communal decision that no one would have televisions. The rationale was that television polluted the mind.

Most people ignored the ban, hid their televisions away, and told their kids to keep mum. But things got hairy.

People would rat each other out—they'd say, "We saw a blue light in so-and-so's living room," and someone volunteered to do spot-checks. We decided that we didn't want to hide anymore or fight this thing, so we got rid of the TV.

We didn't miss it too much. Like I said, there wasn't much on in those days. One memorable cooking show from Jordan TV sticks in our minds until today and sends us into paroxysms of laughter every time one of us quotes the (Arabic) instructions for filling a cantaloupe with Jell-O.

But as the years went by, living on that isolated mountaintop became ever more lonely, especially during the rainy, cold winters. We read a great deal and played games of all kinds—we're big on gaming, but we started to long for a television to fill some of the empty hours.

Then we got our first PC so our eldest child could study computer programming. A local computer whiz confided we could get a TV card for the computer that would enable us to watch television right from our computer. We went ahead and bought the card, and our geek friend installed it for us. Voila! We had television! But there still wasn't much to watch.

At some point, we moved off the settlement and came to live in Efrat. We brought our PC with us, of course, and discovered we could pick up cable TV from the neighbors through our television card. Wonders and miracles!!

But along with this bounty came the disturbing realization that we'd been living under a rock. We had complete culture shock. No longer did we watch old imported sitcoms like Flipper and Sesame Street. We were getting the newest shows now. The dialogue was filled with obscenities, and the women appeared to be practically naked to my unschooled eyes. I found I had to really keep an eye on the kids' viewing habits. Suddenly, TV no longer seemed such a treat.

We weren't too unhappy when the TV card died. We were told no one sold them anymore, they were passé. There was no way to replace the card, so we were once again without television.

We didn't mind at all. Unlike our former settlement, Efrat had a public library, and there were all kinds of activities and friendly people. To be frank, we didn't have much need for TV, so we were just as happy to take a break from being watchdogs for the kids' viewing habits.

Then we moved to a new neighborhood where, once again, we had few acquaintances. The new apartment was partially furnished and included a television in the master bedroom, which was hooked up to cable. We mentioned this to my mother in-law who made us an offer we couldn't refuse: Keep the cable subscription--she'll pay.

She wanted us to be able to watch the shows she enjoyed, so we'd be able to discuss them with her. We figured that as long as the TV was in our bedroom, we'd be able to limit our kids' viewing without much difficulty, so we agreed to keep the TV and the cable subscription.

After a year, we moved yet again. By now, my husband and I had become accustomed to winding down with the television at night, in the privacy of our bedroom. We were loathe to give up our habit and so Dov bought another used television set.

These days, at around 9 PM most nights, Dov and I can be found in our bedrooms in front of the television, surfing around for some interesting programming. However, most nights you can hear us moaning that, "There's nothing on." We've become pretty inured to the delights of television programming.

Last night, because there was little else to watch, we tuned in to the American Music Awards. The event appeared to have little to do with actual music. There was a great deal of pageantry, lighting, and drama. But the main focus appeared to be sex. The producers and the players were trying to titillate the viewers as much as possible with rotating pelvises, lots of skin, and eyes rolled up into heads as if in the throes of sexual delight. Each act seemed to vie with the last for tastelessness.

Most memorable were Lady Gaga and Adam Lambert, whose sexuality went over the edge into downright perversion. I can't even bring myself to write about their antics onstage. Dov thought, "We're old," but I thought, "Are viewers so jaded that they need such blatant sexuality on the stage to wake up their senses?"

When the show mercifully came to its conclusion, I desperately surfed for something, anything that would make me feel better, without knowing what that might be. I happened on the television channel Mezzo, which airs prerecorded concerts, mostly classical music and jazz. I lucked out and got the Berlin Philharmonic performing a gorgeous Rachmaninoff concerto.

The music was like a sweet balm for my heart and soul after all the raunchy perversion of the AMA program. I swooned and reveled in the beauty of the music, smiled with sweet relief, and thought, "Thank God. There is still this. There is still beauty in our world."

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Israel vs. Da Burgh

It seems like I have always wanted to live in Israel, but that's not really an accurate assessment. The truth is, the itch to settle in the Holy Land started with my first reading of Leon Uris' Exodus. Today, that book seems hokey to me, but back then, when I was 8, Uris' words excited something in my blood and lit my soul. I knew I would some day come to Israel and plunk down roots.

After that, my life had a certain temporary quality, as if I were just passing time until it would be possible to get on the plane and make it happen. Once I finished high school that was it--I got on that plane and never really came back to the States except for occasional visits. But something funny happened along the way: I began to yearn for the city of my birth.

Part of this was about the people I loved and had forsaken in moving to my adopted home. But it was more than just missing my loved ones: Pittsburgh has a funny name and a reputation as a backwater filled with rednecks, but in truth it's a beautiful city, full of history, culture and friendly folk.

I never stopped loving Israel, but somehow began appreciating, "da Burgh." I tell people I'm like that awful Mary MacGregor song, "Torn Between Two Lovers," ripped apart by my strong feelings for both Israel and Pittsburgh.

Tickets to the States don't come cheap, so somehow, a full 16 years passed without my seeing the city of my birth. Six maternal relatives died during this time, and each time I thought, "One more person I'll never see again. One more person to whom I'll never get to say goodbye." Whereas my blood had itched for Israel, my heart ached for the city of my birth and to see my loved ones.

When I got to Pittsburgh I really felt I had come home. There I was sitting at the Greater Pittsburgh Airport baggage claim and a nearby family was discussing something inconsequential IN A PITTSBURGH ACCENT. (see: Yes! That terrible wonderful accent that is something against which I fought an active fight during drama classes at the Pittsburgh Playhouse (see: I couldn't suppress a smile. Yay! I was home!

My teacher, Don Wadsworth (see: worked hard to teach us yayhoo Pittsburgh teens the Basic American Accent. I did my durndest, which I guess was pretty good. During my visit, my friend Judi kept saying, "You don't sound like I remember."

Still, there are two words that give away my origins and always will: "towel" and "iron." They each come out as one syllable, no matter how hard I try.

The whole time I was in Pittsburgh this past August, I felt complete happiness just drinking in the sights, the weather, the smells, and the friendly people. It was nice to be in Pittsburgh. I kept thinking what a great place this is, and feeling a bit bittersweet about the fact that I would be returning home to Israel, which I love, but which just isn't Pittsburgh.

Back in my teen years, alongside with my urgent desire to live in Israel, religious zeal blossomed and grew. Those who knew me back in the day find this surprising: I was kind of wild. But the truth is, I always had a strong God-consciousness.

My parents sent me to Hillel Academy in 1972 (see:, in part to ensure my escape from the integration-related violence erupting in the public schools--my first cousin had been knifed in the back at his public high school. My parents were pretty freaked out. A lot of middle class Jewish Pittsburghers had followed suit, since Hillel was a great deal less expensive than private schools like Ellis (see: and Winchester Thurston (see:

At some point, I began to hold up my parents' brand of Conservative Judaism against the Orthodox version taught at Hillel and started to wonder: who's right? But I wondered about religion in general--how do we know that Judaism is right? Everyone thinks their religion is the one true religion.

So, at the tender age of 11, I began taking books out of the library on the major religions. This was interesting stuff, but after a few months I realized I could never cover it all. This was not the way I was going to find the answer or the solution to the right way to believe and serve.

One day, I had an epiphany, which just seemed self-evident, still does: I was born Jewish and the body of literature connected to this religion is vast. I decided that I had no right to go shopping for a different religion when I had my own to study and hadn't covered everything and never could. How could I pass judgment from a state of ignorance?

The more I did learn, the more uncomfortable I felt with Conservative Judaism. I came to a place where I viewed this type of Judaism as something that was less about religion and God than about making it really easy for American Jews to fit into American society. The more I thought about this, the less I understood the desire for conformity. I cared only about doing what was right, that which was mandated by God. Everyone else could kiss off. Perhaps this was my teenaged braggadocio (gosh, I always wanted to use that word) speaking, but today, with all of my 48 plus years safe behind me, I still feel that way.

I mean no offense. I don't think people choose Conservative Judaism with the intention of fitting into society, but rather because they already DO fit into society, and Conservative Judaism just suits them. But I stepped back a bit and felt it was for me to reject that, and to strive harder even if it marked me as odd man out, to observe the most classic form of Judaism possible. This seemed to me the purest form of Judaism, the kind of observance God must have intended for the Jews.

At any rate, being in Pittsburgh this past summer had my head and heart working double time, trying to come to terms with my history and turning my back on things and people I loved in favor of Israel. I felt sad and happy at each turn. It was very difficult.

On the ninth day of my visit, I attended services at a little Pittsburgh shtiebl (small synagogue) called Kesser Torah. This is not the place of worship I would normally frequent, but my time for visiting friends and relatives was so short, and my sister in-law Judy, and her sister Betty, would be davening (praying) there, so I agreed to attend services with them.

Somewhere in the middle of services, all of a sudden I had this strange feeling of emptiness. There was nothing wrong with the services, and I loved being with Judy and Betty. The emptiness emanated from something else. It hit me then: Pittsburgh is the most wonderful place imaginable, but it just isn't Israel. That special holy something was missing.

I whispered something to Judy, because I knew she would understand and she nodded. Judy feels the same itch for Israel in her own soul, but as a blind woman would have to undergo many more deprivations than I to move her life halfway across the world.

I knew then, that while I would always love Pittsburgh, I was not sad that I had chosen to make my home in Israel. There is an energy I feel in Israel that is missing in Pittsburgh. I know many people don't experience that energy and would never think of making their home in Israel.

I'm not a crusader and don't try to persuade people to drop everything and come to the Holy Land. It's not my style. Furthermore, I don't think settling in Israel works for anyone but for those who have no choice due to persecution, or for those who burn in their souls to be in Israel. If you don't have that sensation, that need, it's probably not going to work.

Of course, none of this helps make me feel better about leaving my dear mother, whom I love, back in Da Burgh. I can only hope I'll be blessed with future opportunities to make the trip back to be with her again.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

"A" Student

I was a bit wild during my high school years and ended up going to a great many schools until I finally managed to earn that elusive high school diploma. More about that another time, perhaps, but for today, I want to talk about my favorite teacher at the last school I attended, The University School, which was located in Shadyside, in my hometown of Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania.

The name of the school is loftier than it sounds. I was told by the school's secretary that one year, the students were asked to submit their choice of name for the school, and this name, The University School, was chosen as the name most likely to lend academic cachet to the school. Not that it deserved any as such, serving as it did to provide a modicum of education to kids who were the dregs of society. The students at the school were kids who had been kicked out of every high school system known to man and then some.

By the time I was enrolled there, I didn't have much choice in the matter of which school I would attend. My poor beleaguered mommy was at her wits' end with me, for getting kicked out of school after school. Since three of the schools I had attended were Orthodox Jewish parochial schools, my mother decided that the culprit wasn't me so much as those schools and their particular brand of religion which became more and more odious to her as I became wilder and wilder.

In retrospect, I think the trouble with me came down to one or two learning disabilities, but they didn't know about ADD or discalculia in those days--what I think was wrong. My mother pooh-poohs this idea and I respect her a great deal, so who knows? But going to The University School was a scary experience for me. Even though I was wild compared to Orthodox Jewish parochial school kids, I was as innocent as the driven snow compared to the kids who attended The University school. Those kids were BAD. They'd spent time in court rooms and in "Juvie."

I tried to keep to myself as much as possible, which was pretty easy. The school was different in that all classes were taught one on one, teacher to student. The school was an old home that had been chopped up into cubicles. The kids traveled from cube to cube for classes.

At the time I attended the school, I was trying very hard to conform to traditional Halachic Judaism in terms of my dress code and actions. If that sounds contradictory, so be it. I was wild at heart, but spiritual in my soul, and Yiddishkeit spoke to me. It wasn't easy getting the two to listen to each other and is still at times a great struggle for me.

At any rate, the kids thought I was pretty strange coming to school in skirts and long-sleeved tops, ritually washing my hands in the water fountain before partaking of my sandwich, while they were all snorting coke and doing "'ludes" during lunch break. I think I enjoyed being different and that this was just my particular brand of weird adolescent rebellion. Not that I was as pure as the driven snow, but to those kids, I represented something like those television Evangelists and was a laughable figure.

At any rate, on my first day at the school, following the schedule I had been issued, I walked into Dr. Prine's classroom. Dr. Prine was a very old man. He must have been in his 80's at the time I attended his classes. In fact, I know he was, because he talked once about his memories of WWI. The public school system would never have allowed him to teach at that age, but The University School, was private.

All I know is that when I saw that my teacher was elderly, I remembered the Torah precept about honoring the elderly, including the non-Jewish elderly. I determined then and there, that I would honor this man, no matter what.

Dr. Prine was my math and physics teacher. These are subjects at which I do not acquit myself well (scroll back up--I still think I have discalculia--an inability to relate to numbers and math). But bless me, I tried. Even though my performance was dismal, Dr. Prine never became frustrated with my work. He was kind, soft-spoken, and very patient.

My reward for being polite and for being a failure at math and science was found in being Dr. Prine's audience at the end of what he deemed was enough learning for that particular hour. He would tell me about the old days and his achievements, about a bridge he designed in the 1930's that was still standing. He called me "Barbie," a nickname for my English name which I detested, but I never protested. He told me that he had a granddaughter named Barbie.

My test scores were low, so I was surprised when I received my report card and saw that Dr. Prine had given me an "A." He knew I was puzzled and so he explained, "You may not be so talented at math or science, but as far as I'm concerned, you are the best student in this school."

I realized then, what a trial it must have been for this quiet, brilliant old man to have to teach the ruffian student body at that school. I imagined them ignoring him as he taught, putting their shoes up on the desk, being rude, coming to classes stoned out of their gourds. It hurt me to the core on his behalf. I really liked this man, more than just about any teacher I'd ever had in school. Maybe that's because I had worked so hard at listening and being polite, so that I got a taste of the human being inside the teacher's clothing.

I married my husband less than a year after my graduation and soon found myself expecting my first child. When my little girl was about half a year old, my mother sent me a newspaper clipping. It was an obituary for Dr. Prine. I saw that the obituary was about a year old. I asked my mother about the delay and she told me she didn't want to distress me with news of Dr. Prine's death during my pregnancy, because she knew how much I had cared for the old man.

I think that learning to be still and listen to Dr. Prine held me in good stead in all my relationships until now, and especially with the elderly. I learned not to speak about myself and to really listen and learn from other people. Perhaps I really did earn that perfect grade.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Nu Testament

Until I was around 4 years old, I thought that everyone was Jewish. Judaism, to me, seemed monolithic, the whole point, the only thing there was. So, it must have been December circa 1965 that I approached my childhood friend and neighbor, Susie McElvaney and asked her, "What did you get for Chanuka?"

Susie responded, "We don't have Chanuka, we have Christmas."

"What's that?" asked I, clueless.

"Well, Jews have Chanuka, and Christians have Christmas."

"What is 'Christian?'"

"It's a religion. Like being Jewish is a religion. You're Jewish, I'm Christian."

"Wait. You mean you're not Jewish??"

I was crestfallen. To me this indicated some kind of blemish in my favorite playmate and seemed to be something that was irrevocable. I remember feeling very sad and disturbed that there was a sudden gap between me and Susie, between her family and my own. I found it difficult to grapple with this concept and felt depressed.

Within days, I had come to terms with the idea that not everyone is the same or has the same beliefs, but I found myself very curious about Christianity. I picked up bits and pieces about the religion from my reading, and from my friends, but I think what brought home the whole issue to me in its entirety was the musical, Jesus Christ Superstar.

Once I figured out the gist of Christianity, I was stymied—how on earth could anyone believe such a wild story, I wondered? I mean, did people really believe a guy could be God, subsequently die, but they think he's going to come back and rule over the world as a reincarnation? How could God die? I mean, if he's God, he can't die—isn't that the point?

So, my little ten year old mind had passed judgment, nay dismissed concepts that great minds had wrestled with for 19 plus centuries. Of course, big mouth that I was, I couldn't keep this discovery to myself. I had to share the joke. At home among family members, I was thought of as quite the comedian. I could always bring down the house with my antics. Why not try out my act on the schoolyard, thought I?

The next day, I heard the kids singing the title song from the musical. I was ready. I lifted my arms out at my sides and called out in an authoritative, hopefully Godly voice, "I am the reincarnation of Jesus Christ Superstar, come to rule over the earth!"

I waited for the guffaws to roll in. Curiously, they did not. Or rather, the kids laughed all right, but not because they thought I was funny—they thought I was wacked up in the head.

From then on, whenever kids would see me, they'd call out, "Hey, look! It's the reincarnation of Jesus Christ Superstar," and they'd expect me to go into my Varda on the Cross imitation. It was horrible. They were ridiculing me. But I couldn't think how to gracefully change my situation.

For years, this went on even after I switched schools. My former classmates and others from that school would see me on the street and call out, "There she is, "Jesus' reincarnation," and they'd laugh and point to me and I'd dutifully hold my arms out at my sides and wink divinely.

It boggles my mind today, as a mother of children, just how permanent that whole episode became; how that one little bit of playacting colored my entire childhood and made me miserable and unpopular for years. In fact, I kind of suppressed this memory until a short time ago when I met up with old friends from that school on Facebook.

I told my husband what had happened and he just couldn't believe I had started such a dumb routine going. He was embarrassed for me. I'm still not sure I should have told him about this whole business. But in the interest of full disclosure, as they say, I guess it was important for him to know about this (gulp) formative experience. Just hope my kids never find out…

Monday, November 9, 2009


"If I get like that, shoot me," said Dov, talking about my latest elder care charge, "V" Okay, you're all thinking, "Hey, wait! I thought Varda was a writer."

Well, yes and no. I'm a writer, but my career fortunes rise and fall and sometimes, I swallow down my pride and take work that has nothing to do with writing, and everything to do with paying the bills. I've cleaned houses, watched babies, baked cakes, and watched the elderly. If I had my druthers, I'd never leave my keyboard, but it's an imperfect world.

The truth is there are two ages I really like: newborns, and the really old. Newborns don't care much about impressing their handlers, ditto, the elderly. There's something really attractive about that kind of honesty. Newborns are awe-inspiring for their potential, and the elderly inspire awe for the breadth and depth of their experience and knowledge.

At any rate, I have a genuine fondness for old people, and lucky for me, they seem to like me back. I now have a reputation as an A1 elder care person and I'm always being offered new positions. When my writing work is bringing in the big bucks (yeah, right), I can turn down these opportunities, but right now, I cannot.

So it was that I got a call one day from a guy looking for someone who could watch his mother who has been diagnosed with dementia. As he fleshed out the details, I had a feeling I knew the identity of the lady in question. I asked for her name, and sure enough, it was V. I told V's son, "This is a real coincidence, because I was V's neighbor for a few years and we were close friends. I'm sorry to hear about your mother, but I can't think of a better situation than to have me, her dear friend, take charge of her care."

So it was that I began the heartbreaking job of witnessing V's decline. V is a highly intelligent woman, attractive and looking much younger than her years. But V is a bit of a character, always was. So is her husband, L. Maybe that's why it took so long to diagnose V's dementia.

At any rate, somehow, I am able to understand what V is trying to express, even when she is casting about for phrases and substituting words that mean nothing like what she is trying to say. There is an unbelievable rapport between us and I have to admit that I get an inordinate amount of pleasure from being able to grant her the gift of understanding. The truth is, I don't find it much harder understanding V's speech than understanding the pre-speech of my children back in the days when they couldn't speak but ached to be understood. I was always there to provide them with that commodity.

There are other similarities between being with my new charge and spending time with infants. When my babies were small, I'd be so immersed in their worlds that I found myself mimicking their speech patterns. The same is true of spending time with V. I come home from work and find myself using word substitutions and speaking out of context. It's kind of frightening, actually. I have pointed it out to my husband and he agrees: I'm in a state of dementia for at least 10 minutes after I leave V.

Maybe this is related to the fact that I was big into drama classes as a teen and acted in any production that came my way. I still have my book on the Stanislavski Method. I can feel myself straining so hard during the five hours I care for V, trying to understand her every verbal nuance. I guess, at a certain point, I merge and become one with V. The scary part is worrying I'll get stuck and won't be able to make it back.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Um Shmum

I n response to the Israeli navy's interception of the arms-laden Francop cargo ship last Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has called on the United Nations to investigate the incident rather than waste its time on accusations against Israel for war crimes. Netanyahu's statements were part of a massive public relations campaign which began Tuesday night after the Francop was found to be filled with 320 of weapons including mortar shells, rockets, Katyushas and assorted other weaponry hailing from Iran. The weapons were meant to be delivered to the Hizbullah via Syria.

Netanyahu's comments to the UN are meant as a counterpoint to the eagerness of the General Assembly who has chosen at this time to debate the Goldstone Report, which accuses Israel of war crimes against the Arab residents of Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. Meanwhile, Iran arms Hizbullah to kill Israeli civilians and the UN pays no attention. The beleaguered Israeli prime minister hoped to get across the idea that the only objective of the Iranian weapons shipment was to "attack and kill as many civilians—women, children, and the elderly—as possible. This is a war crime."

Netanyahu's statement admonishes that, "The UN General Assembly, which is meeting today, should investigate, discuss and condemn [the Iranian arms shipment]. This is a war crime that should prompt the UN Security Council to convene in special session, especially since it was in gross violation of UN Security Council resolutions."

The prime minister counsels, "This is what the international community should concentrate on at all times - but especially today. But instead, they have chosen to assemble and condemn the IDF and the State of Israel, and to try and undermine our legitimate right to defend ourselves."
Netanyahu went on to praise the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) as an army with morals of high caliber, commenting, "We know that it is the IDF and the security services of the State of Israel that stand against the war criminals who plan to perpetrate war crimes against Israeli citizens.

Netanyahu ended his statements with a dare to the UN to uphold the truth, "I think that the time has come for the international community, at least its more responsible countries, to recognize the truth and not promote a lie."

Of course, the Francop seizure received very little international attention, in spite of the Israeli PR campaign. The New York Times ran only a brief item, two days after the fact, while The Washington Post wrote up the story as a sidebar to an article that treats the mistakes of the Obama administration regarding the peace process.

Me? I'm angry. I say, "Um Shmum!" which is what Ben Gurion responded when he was told the UN would guarantee Israel's security after the 1956 Sinai Campaign. "Um" is the way Israelis pronounce the Hebrew acronym that represents the UN and "shmum," is a dismissive, Yiddish-inflected retort. After all, when has the UN ever guaranteed Israel's security?

The only thing the UN ever seems to do is make resolutions renouncing the only democratic country in the region while giving carte blanche to her terror-wielding neighbors, who continue to profess their desire to wipe tiny Israel off the map. But don't take my word for it, count 'em up yourself: between March 1948 and January 2009, the UN has passed a whopping 221 resolutions against Israel.

How many similar resolutions have been passed against Iran, Iraq, and North Korea? Why is Israel singled out? Well, duh, as my kids would say: it's blatant anti-Semitism.

I decided to take a look at what statistics I might find regarding UN resolutions against other nations. According to UN Watch, in 2008 alone, Israel had its hands smacked more times than any other country. There were 28 UN actions against Israel in 2008, while Afghanistan was reprimanded three times, and Iran only once.

Why do we put up with this crap? Wake up and smell the coffee.
Isn't it time for Israel to leave the UN?

Friday, November 6, 2009

True Blue

Most marriages are filled with compromise, and my own is no exception. I always tell Dov that it's a good thing we don't own a house—we'd never agree on the interior décor. But he always insists that there is plenty we can agree on and we'd have no trouble finding that place of agreement. Maybe so.

But while we can and do find places of happy agreement, there are still a great number of tastes and issues on which we will never see eye to eye. We have learned to stay out of each others' way with mutual good grace so as to provide us the freedom to pursue our differences. Music is a good example of the way this marital consideration works. I love Joni Mitchell, Dov hates her with a capital H.

I get it--I get why he doesn't like Joni: her voice with its twists and turns, sails into the higher registers and grates on his nerves. But I like that about her. I just do. Her jazzy vocals don't just sing, they speak. I don't like all of Mitchell's music, but I could listen to the tracks from Blue, for instance, all day, and never, ever tire of them.

I have the habit of falling in love with songs, so that I can listen to a single, beloved song over and over at full volume, for hours at a time. That's how it is for me with All I Want, Carey, Case of You, and California. I used to wait until Dov left for work, and then blast those songs, in a continuous shuffle, as I swooned and crooned, attempting to match her vocal acrobatics.

Now that I have an Ipod, I can listen to my heart's content without causing offense to my dear husband, though there is a certain amount of occasional annoyance generated by the idea that I've cut myself off from him and the kids. I've learned to keep one earpiece in and the other dangling, so no one feels scorned: not my family, and not Joni, either.

Yes. I'm on a first name basis with this particular singer, because she is singing my soul. The other day I wrote about the affection we have for reading diaries because they represent the writer's truest and deepest emotions without concern for others' eyes. The tracks on Blue, both the music and the lyrics, are like that, offered with such complete honesty it makes me ache.

Maybe Joni's musical/lyrical approach back in 1971, when Blue came out, was a bit immature in its full-blown rush of emotion. In 1979, Joni discussed the way the music on this album reflected her raw, emotional state at that time, "The Blue album, there's hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn't pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either."

That's the precise reason the album became so popular: the music and lyrics are so open and poignant that you suspect the writer was either very brave or never thought anyone else would ever listen in. I don't believe anyone other than Joni has the power to convey that state of raw adolescent feeling as expressed in All I Want. James Taylor's gutsy guitar on this track is unashamed and strong. That guitar is like a heartbeat weaving in and out of the words:

"I want to talk to you, I want to shampoo you.
I want to renew you again and again.
Applause, applause—life is our cause
When I think of your kisses my mind see-saws."

Most of the time, lyrics don't mean much to me. I'm paying much more attention to the music. But with Joni, it's different. To my mind, the most poignant lyrics ever heard on the subject of longing can be heard in My Old Man:

"The bed's too big/The frying pan's too wide."

In Blue, Joni took emotion and turned it into an art form.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Etiquette Nominative

ot long ago, the daughter of my favorite first cousin was married. It was a foregone conclusion that I would not be able to attend the wedding, since I live halfway around the world. Therefore my cousin did not send me an invitation to the event and I understood that this was not meant as a slight but was only proper etiquette.

I was raised knowing that sending an invitation to someone whom you know will not attend your event is bad form, because an invitation obligates one to buy a gift. According to this school of thought, inviting someone who cannot attend your event would be an act both greedy and uncaring: as if your presence at the event does not much matter, but the gift sure does.

I don't know how I came to learn this rule, but the source was, without a doubt, my mother. It's amazing just how many rules of etiquette she managed to impart to me in the short time I spent under her tutelage. You see, I married and left America for good when I was only eighteen years of age and settled in Israel. Despite the brief schooling I received while in my mother's home, the etiquette backbone of my formative years is as strong and intact as if it were made of steel.

In my head these rules of etiquette remain unshaken voices that guide me like the good and bad consciences depicted in old cartoons—whispering in both my ears, tempting one and admonishing the other. Rules like, "Never wear white after Labor Day, except for a 'winter white,'" and, "Don't wear white to a wedding, it detracts from the impact of the bride's white gown."

There were many of these rules and until today, I never know when one is going to pop up upon the screen of my mental signpost, the words emblazoned before my eyes: "Don't wear black to a wedding!"

But part of my growing up was done after my marriage, in my adopted land, where my sensibilities were challenged by those who had been raised under different systems. My friends were/are always receiving invitations to events taking place in the States. Once, noticing such an invitation stuck with a magnet on a friend's fridge, I dared to bring up the subject.

I told her what I had been taught and asked what she thought about that. Her reaction was one of surprise. "Now that our families are separated by such a great distance," she said, "this is the only way our relatives can keep the family connection alive. We want to know if a cousin is getting married, to see the invitation, learn where the event will be held, and send a congratulatory note."

My friend was puzzled that I was under the impression that an invitation obligates one to purchase a gift, and thought this a strange idea. I didn't quite know what to make of this. Did this mean my friend was unschooled in proper etiquette—a boor—or was there a genuine difference of opinion as to what is the right course of action in this case?

Since my neighbor did not take offense at my questions, I ventured to ask other friends about this. There was an overwhelming majority opinion among them that there is nothing wrong with sending invitations to friends or relatives no longer in the country and that this is the normal way people keep in touch. No one else had ever heard this business about being obligated to purchase a gift. Most did, in fact, refrain from purchasing gifts for such events and felt it sufficed to send a congratulatory note.

When my first son was about to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah, I thought about all of this and concluded that I would not send invitations to my relatives in America with one exception. My son was named for my late father, who had just one sibling. I thought my paternal uncle would be touched to hear of his great nephew's Bar Mitzvah, since Gedalia is the only one who carries his big brother's name.

My intentions may have been good, but when I mentioned what I had done, my mother was disappointed in me. With subsequent social events, I never repeated this course of action, because I saw how my lack of compliance with the formal etiquette Mom had taught me could end up making me appear to have a lack of breeding, and make my mother look like a poor teacher.

It does seem to me though, that etiquette is an evolving art, and I wonder whether these comforting absolutes are really as prevalent as they once were. I do realize that etiquette is all about being considerate. Would it not be considerate to let people know that a loved one, far away, is about to experience a milestone event? Perhaps there is an in between to these rules that were taught to me as something immutable?

On the one hand, it's a good feeling to know I can rely on my mother's teachings, but still I wondered if there was any wiggle room on this ruling. I decided to Google the subject and see what came up. I was happy to find a source I knew my mother would deem reputable: the Emily Post Institute.

Part of me was convinced that the people at Emily Post would uphold my mother's teachings, but another part of me was hoping for flexibility. What I found gave me deep satisfaction, since it treated both sides of the equation. My mother was not wrong, but neither were my friends:

"Q. What do I do about invitations to out-of-town guests who can’t possibly attend?

A. Many people prefer not to send invitations to those friends and acquaintances who they think cannot possibly attend the celebrations. In most cases, these friends should receive a wedding announcement instead, which carries no gift obligation. However, some good friends who live far away might actually be hurt if you don’t invite them, even if your intent was to spare them from feeling obliged to send a gift. In general, always invite truly good friends—even if they live far away."

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Honesty and Voyeurism

# C

ommenting on my newest venture, this blog, one friend commented, "Nice job & beautiful name. One comment...I'd take this out:

"Perhaps "disputed territories," or, "over the green line," would suit the purposes of liberals, but for me, this is just politics.

It's honest but there's no point in possibly alienating someone who might read your blog & throw you some work."

My immediate response to these words was puzzlement. I couldn't think why these words would alienate or offend anyone. But this friend is someone whose opinion I value and I didn't want to dismiss her comments out of hand. After some thought, I understood her point: a great many people get really hot and bothered about their political beliefs and for me to toss off these words in such a cavalier manner could really get someone's dander up.

But blogs are meant to express the opinions of the writer with deep personal honesty. In the old days, people kept diaries under lock and key. The authors of diaries knew that no other eyes would ever read their words and this gave the writer a sense of entitlement and the absolute freedom that came with the permission to air private thoughts.

To my mind, a blog is a narcissistic venture by its very nature, which is why I resisted the urge for so long, to create my own blog. It seems to me that in general, bloggers crave an audience and those who read their words are engaging in some permitted voyeurism.

I wonder how Ann Frank would react if she could know that so many people have read of her most intimate, coming-of-age experiences and feelings?

But in fact, that is what keeps readers so entranced with her words: the writing of diaries is no-holds-barred writing. It's honest and straight to the heart of the matter. The author need not fear reaction, because the words remain unread.

These unshared words, never aired, are in a sense, unborn. We feel privileged knowing that we will never read more honest words than those never intended to be seen by other eyes. These words speak to us more than others, because we know that Ann was not concerned, as she wrote them, about how they would be received. More than that, we relate to her words because we have felt these same feelings, without having been able to air them to others.

There were some who vilified Otto Frank, Ann's father, for attaining fame through publishing his daughter's diary. The notion of someone becoming rich through personal tragedy was one root cause of this vilification, but there were some who felt that it was wrong to share Ann's most personal thoughts without her permission.

I used Ann Frank's diary to illustrate the idea that such deep and personal thoughts were once treated with delicacy and utmost privacy, at least until long after the death of the author. With the advent of the World Wide Net, we now have an open climate in which there are avid followers for the innermost thoughts of others. There is a partnership here: those who air their dirty linen in public, and those who like to watch.

So, yes, this seemed to me a difficult moral decision, this creation of a blog. I do want to be honest in my writing, but hope I will retain the dignity and delicacy of my private emotions.

But back to my friend's comments, which is where all this introspection really began. While I am not going to be publishing anything truly embarrassing on this blog, I do hope to feel free to state my honest thoughts about the issues and agendas that are important to me; those uppermost in my mind. My blog will not be about currying favor with a universal audience, but is instead, an attempt to gain a following by like-minded people, or to show those with different sets of sensibilities another side of the equation.

However, if someone were to become upset by my use of a particular phrase and write about it---well, great! Controversy? I welcome that.

I will never please everyone, but it seems to me that the next best thing to pleasing everyone is controversy and honest, polite debate.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Nobody Likes a Kvetch

It's a truism--nobody likes a kvetch. I had a friend, years ago, all she did was gripe about her difficult life. At first, I remained faithful, listened to her ad infinitum venting, mirrored her thoughts, sympathized, and on occasion, offered advice. But it was wearing. I realized I felt weary and down every time I left her. You can't really hide it when you feel like that, so I'd bring my blue fatigue home to my family and, well, it was contagious. Just affected everyone in sight.

I don't know how long it took for me to figure this out. I think it must have been about three years. So, for three long years, I coddled and nurtured this friend. I don't think she was clinically depressed, just seemed to have complete focus on the negative aspects of her life.

Was her life so bad? I really don't think so.

It may not be fair for me to second guess how hard her life felt to her, but when I realized how being with her made me feel, I decided it was time for me to take a hard look at the issues and get some perspective. I could only examine the details as she shared them with me, but her complaints did seem kind of garden variety to me. Weighing her issues against my own issues was the decisive factor in realizing that this friend's negativity was a heavy burden: unhealthy for me and my family. Besides, no matter what careful advice I offered, she always countered with why she couldn't possibly follow my counsel. I wanted to help her, but it didn't seem possible. Even just as a listening ear, I didn't seem to be able to offer much assistance, since the very next day, she felt just the same. At most, I might have been able to conclude that my listening may have kept her from feeling worse.

I didn't do anything cruel. I still cared about this woman. But I began to limit the amount of time I spent in her presence. The effect was immediate: I felt lighter, happier, and so did my family.

Now, I remember this friend whenever I'm laid low by circumstances and I make an effort to keep a cheerful countenance, no matter what. I do this by following my own, unfollowed advice to my friend, all those years ago. Instead of focusing on the painful, very real issues, I look for what I can do to change my situation into a brighter, happier one. I also make sure I milk every precious drop out of the goodness in my life.

Once you begin to look for happiness, you can find it everywhere. But you have to do the leg-work: you have to watch for those moments of joy.

Yesterday, I had a truly sucky day. My editor let the writing team know that our company is planning to employ outsourcing to get web content for half the price of what we've been receiving for the past two years. We had a choice: make a bid and accept twice as much work for half as much pay, or skidaddle. Let me add that I've been caring for a woman with dementia to round out my income and debts are mounting. My husband is urging me to take on more elder care, or to find work as a cashier, or clean houses. I've done this in the past. I know there's no shame in cleaning houses. But it FEELS shameful. It's nasty. It's exhausting. It's depressing.

And I do believe that I will succeed at my writing. I don't know why I feel this way, but I just do. I'm not yet ready to throw in the towel.

So, I attacked the issue with as much positivity as I could muster. I looked not at what I couldn't change, but what I might, with a bit of effort, be able to change. Here is what I did:

I worked on my profile at LinkedIn, and I searched for connections of connections with similar professional interests and made connection requests, copying and pasting the same message for pages and pages of search hits. An overwhelming number of these people accepted my request so that my list of contacts expanded 10 fold. I thought about which of my LinkedIn contacts might write me a reference, and nudged them until they followed through.

I wrote to a local writer's list, told my tale of woe, and asked for advice. As a result, advice from other writers has been coming into my inbox all morning. I also thought about what other contacts I have and how they might help me. A friend publishes a few children's books every year, so I sat down and typed up a children's story, edited my piece, and sent in a submission query.

I read about new job listings and applied for the one job that seemed suitable for me.

Then, I watched for happy moments.

I find that I have to attack unpleasantness on two levels. There is the practical level, as in the steps I took above, but there is the emotional comfort that arrives in small doses all day long, with no effort at all. You just have to be watching for them.

Last night, I invited my little boy into my bed so I could read to him before his bedtime. He didn't just accept my invitation, but looped his sweet pudgy arm around my own. It was so nice I held my breath for a moment.

But there are so many moments like these. I sit at my typewriter, typing away, dressed in my fuzziest, soft top, while outside the weather is blustery and gray. The house is filled with the smell of the good soup I have bubbling away on the stove, and it's pleasant to be home.

I know, too, that I have friends who care about me and loving children who like to spend time in my presence.

Yes, there is a lot of crap in my life. But what earthly good does it do me to dwell on the details? It's like being on a bus, stuck in traffic. You are late for your appointment, but there is absolutely nothing you can do about it, except call from your cellphone and explain your lateness. You're still going to be late. It's an act of God.

If you do your part, pray if you're a God-fearing person, or act, if you're a practical person (both in my case), then depression and worry are not productive emotions. Give them short shrift. Move on, act, pray, and find the joyful moments. You've got no choice. No one likes a kvetch.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Plain Food

Being a Gemini, I have a kind of ADD approach to life. I flit from thing to thing, having dozens of interests and am never quite able to decide my perfect focus. I love to act and sing. I love to write (duh). I enjoy researching my family history and I like to cook. I am enamored of the computer and of the virtual world and take pride in my prowess at manipulating Google to give me the goods. So, you'll never know what you're going to get from me here on my blog, and the truth is, I don't know, either.

So, I came here this morning, filled with ideas about what I want to write and just COULDN'T decide. I drew mental lots and chose the topic of plain food as a good start.

Yes, I'm a foodie. But I'm not a foodie who is interested in trying new and unusual recipes. I like plain food that is true to its earliest ancestor. For example, reading a recipe about lamb with apricots in phyllo dough leaves me completely cold, and maybe even a bit nauseated. I'd much rather read and follow a recipe for Craig Claiborne's Southern Fried Chicken. THAT, my friends, is mouth-watering. To me.

His recipe is mostly chicken, white flour, salt and pepper, and some Tabasco sauce. But it's out of this world. Try to gussy it up and you'll have missed the point. It's perfect. I can't bear to think or hear of people tampering with a recipe as good as that.

Southern food is a great example of the kind of food I like best: unfussy, not cluttered up with unusual ingredients in an attempt to excite the palate: it doesn't NEED anything else. Believe me, my palate is never bored with a humble piece of that Southern Fried chicken. I'm drooling all over my keyboard as I write this.

But since I'm of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, and I have taken an interest in family research, I have melded these two interests in the form of recreating authentic recipes for Ashkenazi food. This is the kind of food that weighs you down and makes you groan. It's filled with salt and cholesterol. But hey! We only live once. I definitely don't want to have lived without enjoying my favorite foods.

I have to leave for work soon, but I wanted to give an example of a simple recipe my mother once described to me. This recipe is for Bub Tzimmes. Lithuanian Jews, such as my mother, don't generally use much sugar in their cuisine, so this recipe is kind of an anomaly. Otherwise, you can see where this recipe would have been popular for the plainness of its ingredients, for its simplicity and for its cost effectiveness. It's also a stick-to-the ribs kind of dish and probably kept a lot of Litvaks warm in those dreadful Eastern European winters. When I finally reveal the ingredients, you are going to have a bit of a shock and may be dubious that this is a dish worth trying, but I have to say it's absolutely scrumptious.

Ready? The ingredients are dried lima beans--cooked until slightly mushy, chicken fat (schmaltz), salt, pepper, and a bit of sugar. That's all. It's unctuous. It's sublime. But you will have to try it to find out. Believe me, this is authentic, plain food at its absolute best. If you're a foodie, I dare you to try it and swoon with pleasure.