• Strong Like Me

In the uncanny world of my dreams last night, I was wearing my teaching credential around my neck, as a charm on a chain. The credential was a dogtag the length of a small fingernail. It hung next to another charm, a religious symbol, the Unitarian Universalist chalice, which is usually represented as a flat dish with a flame above it. In this dream, though, the chalice had a lid and a spout, like Aladdin’s lamp.

I had students in my charge, but they were nowhere to be seen. We had ventured into a moss green field surrounded by birch trees; I had sent them off to the woods to look for hidden treasure. It was clear to me in the dream that this was the most worthwhile lesson I could offer.

lampglobeInstead of tending to my students, I was standing next to a picnic table, chatting with a young man who had come to observe my class, I held the necklace in my hands and tried to explain its meaning. My identity as a (lapsed) Unitarian, with its focus on questions rather than answers, on possibilities rather than dogmas, was something I never mentioned explicitly in my teaching, but it certainly informed the decisions I made.

When I looked down, though, the necklace had transformed into a thick white plastic collar. Inset within the plastic shape, spinning on a form-molded axis, was a racquetball-sized plastic globe in blue and green. Within the dream-symbol workshop of my unconscious mind, the product designers were working overtime!

In fact, the little globe was identical to a real object, a little treasure of mine that I keep in a drawer in the studio Micropalace where we live (as opposed to the storage space where Hubby and I stockpile most of our possessions). I received it from a dear friend, who was five at the time (now she’s eight).

She belongs to my adopted Bay Area family, former housemates of my husband’s, with whom we have been having dinner once a week for the past nine years. Over these years, the parents have allowed Hubby and me to be true auntie and uncle to their three talented, whip-smart, athletic daughters. Their precocious social skills have been enhanced, I like to think, both by an absence of television and by the constant meddling of their many adult friends.

One instance of preternatural empathy and grace manifested itself years ago, when I was grieving my father. The Middle Child, not quite six years old at the time, assured me consolingly that death is a natural and universal experience. Everybody dies, she confided, with a pat on the arm and an earnest gaze. Everybody. Even me. To pester, nag, encourage, proofread, and giggle with all three of them–and to receive their dazzling expressions of youthful wisdom–has been one of the great privileges of my life.

Unsurprisingly, the Youngest One has exhibited leadership qualities since well before she could speak. While learning to walk, she skillfully managed her adult staff, coordinating their hand-holding shifts. Once she was walking, she was strutting around patting pillows, rounding us up for stuffed animal tea parties. Pulling on sleeves, she dragged us up to dance.

She explored her environment avidly, reacting with the same shocked tears of outrage every time she ignored our warnings and toddled herself off the dining room bench. Then she was up and at it again.

Not long after her fourth birthday, at her eldest sister’s middle school graduation, I spotted Youngest One off from the festivities, seated under a redwood tree, holding court with three or four preteen boys.

For a brief phase, though, she played a little rough with her age mates, insisting on the games she wanted, stealing turns, hoarding toys. Once, in her living room, when she yanked a block out of a smaller kid’s hand, I got indignant. Stop that!

What?! Here, she executed a preternatural eye roll but also blushed, clearly upset that I had hollered at her.

That’s your guest! I insisted.

She held my glance for a few moments, then shrugged philosophically and gave back the block.

This was quite a new pattern for her. Usually, when reproached, she went and hid behind the floral chair in the corner. It was the next week when she came up to me and pressed the little blue globe into my hand. A present, she declared in her piccolo voice. Because you’re strong, like me!

In my dream as well as in my drawer, then, the globe constitutes a pep-talk, a reminder of Young One’s élan and my own occasional outbreaks of personal efficacy. It’s a pep talk that I can use about now, because I am feeling the temptation to wallow in helplessness. On another front, a dear, lifelong friend of mine is gravely ill, and there’s not a thing I can do about it. That means that in the abstract sense my own world is cracking.

When it comes to the larger world, I struggle for my footing against political forces pushing for education cuts, the monetization of the electoral process, the elimination of environmental accountability, and hegemony for the largest corporate players in the economy, with in the government, and even on the net. (Why do I feel like I’m “injecting politics” into a personal essay, harping on these issues, when the other side is politicking so relentlessly.)

As for the teaching tag and the magic chalice, they seem to be a prayer both for the power to effect change and the wisdom to use it well, qualities that feel like they’re far out of my reach. It has taken me most of my life just to learn how to nudge a good-hearted but strong-willed child to put down a block and play nice. Now I want to nudge a whole freaking planet, and keep nudging, in a scenario where the kids with the most toys will never stop grabbing for more.

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• The Berkeley Wave / Miami is Not Sorry

berkeleywaveThis morning, driving down Milvia Street near Berkeley Way, where palm trees and vine-slung trellises give way to glass and steel and stucco, Raymond (aka Hubby) and I fielded a sterling example of the phenomenon we call “the Berkeley wave.” That’s the wag of the hand that people give you when they’re turning left in front of you or pulling out at a stop sign even though you were there first — a pretend thank you, as if you had chosen to forego your right of way and let the other person in. It acknowledges, on a theoretical level, that the person waving did something wrong. Nothing says “I’m sorry, but not really” like the Berkeley wave.

Like any community, Berkeley has its own mix of traffic laws, written and unwritten, based on what people are used to and on what police will or won’t enforce. I became aware of such local idiosyncrasies when I lived in Miami, Florida, where a green light did not mean go. It meant wait. Wait for three more cars to run their red light; wait for cars in the intersections to finish their left turns. Then proceed with caution.

One thing I like about Berkeley’s brand of vehicular etiquette is that cars stop for pedestrians, at stoplights, crosswalks, or anything resembling a street corner. That interaction can be an elegant, even balletic, ritual of urban concord. As the motorist, you start decelerating far back from the crosswalk, and the ped strolls forward, giving you a truly friendly wave and a smile of genuine warmth. If you plan it right, controlling your speed, you won’t even have to stop.

In downtown traffic, however, things get trickier. If you’re turning right in Berkeley, a green light again means wait. Wait for a dozen yoga-mat-toting smart-phone readers to take advantage of the walk sign. Once the Don’t Walk starts flashing, though, amblers beware. Unrewarded patience transitions into rage. Drivers take self-righteous pleasure in drifting up to menace the stragglers.

Drivers, in turn, test the pedestrians’ patience on leafy residential streets, where mottled light makes the human figure hard to see. Stuck in traffic, you sometimes get so focused on the erratic Volvo in front of you that the sidewalks fade, slipping into your cognitive blind spot, and you blow right past a hand-holding couple or a dad/jogger pushing a stroller.

Especially in the morning, when children are walking to school, Raymond and I work together to spot the walkers, describing each intersection aloud. Today he was at the wheel as we crept up on Milvia and Berkeley Way, looking for potential street crossers.

To our left, a young woman neared the intersection, walking fast, her hands in her pockets and her sandy-blond braid tucked into the collar of her jacket. She seemed like she might step out into the street, but no, she veered left, staying on the sidewalk. We slowed down long enough to clock a lanky man in an orange shirt — “Hmm, that guy’s not crossing either” — so we pulled through the intersection, only to confront the sandy-haired woman dead in front of us, forging a diagonal path in the middle of the block. As we braked, she flicked her hand at us, then turned her head away.

“There it was!” I sang out to Raymond, “a real Berkeley wave.”

***

“I’m sorry, but not really,” is not something you would have heard in Miami in the 1990s. In fact, you could go a long time in South Florida without hearing any apologies at all. (This may still be the case, in fact, but I’m in no longer in a position to know.) One of the oddly enjoyable things about living in Miami was that, in utter opposition to Berkeley, nobody there was trying to be good. Or anyway, the bar was low. Just by virtue of the fact that they had never done dirty work for Latin American dictators, that they were more upright than the elected officials running Ponzi schemes or leaving threatening messages on the answering machine at the Miami Herald, ordinary people could count themselves as moral paragons.

The reason that this was enjoyable was that the genuinely good people — and I met plenty — never looked for admiration. They belonged to the Yoda school of social action: There is no try, only do. In Berkeley as well as Miami, mentoring and advocacy often spring from deeply held convictions. In Miami, where progressive activism did little to contribute to a person’s social status, where political correctness consisted of denouncing Fidel Castro, it was easier to witness the ways in which altruism arose from personal integrity.

I volunteered, for instance, for a small nonprofit dedicated to raising breast cancer awareness in the Haitian-American community. The founder, twenty-six-year old Jacques, had lost his mother to the disease, in a death that could have been prevented but for social taboos and for shame. Having found a lump, his mother hid her condition and refused Western medicine once she became ill. Ultimately, she changed her mind about anti-cancer treatments, but it was too late. So Jacques and his friends traveled to street fairs and other neighborhood festivities, handing out pamphlets and starting conversations in the hopes of saving someone’s life.

Truth is, I didn’t exactly volunteer voluntarily. I met Rose, Jacques’s associate, during a job I had helping to organize an outdoor even designed to rally the public toward public service and help nonprofits to attract volunteers. I’m not sure how Rose got it in mind that I, a Volunteer ’97 staff member, would personally volunteer with her organization, but she approached me with so much confidence and anticipatory gratitude that I simply went along. Furthermore, I can’t say I contributed all that much. Rose told me they were having an inauguration party and needed food and drink donations. I asked when. She said, “In two weeks.” Not enough time for the method I knew for begging such donations: writing letters to restaurants and then following up with phone calls.

Instead, Jacques hit the pavement a few days before the event, asking door-to-door, and to my astonishment he mustered copious quantities of rice, beans, chicken, salad, hors d’oeuvres, and fruit, as well as scores of boxes of wine coolers, donated by the distributor. The inauguration took place in a gorgeous but decrepit building with marble inlay floors and dusty Venetian blinds with broken slats. My self-appointed function was to improve the facility, straightening and dusting the blinds. I chased bugs out of the restrooms, provided hand soap, and cleaned a dead lizard off of a windowsill (not as uncommon a chore, in South Florida, as you might think).

My greatest contribution, though, was bringing my friend Joel and my friend Wendy, both of them seasoned volunteers, as I was soon to learn. Though they had never met before, they put their heads together and quickly sussed out the problems that could emerge when hundreds of guests sought access to warm bottles of “cooler.” Wendy (or was it Joel?) went out and bought ice and garbage bags, and then we scoured the building for trash bins to convert into ice buckets. Using the wine cooler boxes like concrete blocks, the two of them built a bar and spent the evening serving up cold drinks to a festive crowd.

It’s hardly fair of me, I realize, to juxtapose one of the best days of my Miami years with Berkeley’s everyday shuffle, but I’m compensating for the fact that Berkeley’s flower-child reputation obscure its underlying current of aggressivity. In fact, I marvel at both places and the deep contradictions in each city’s ethos, the jostling of shopping carts amidst aisles of organic produce, the early morning beach clean-up that follows on the late-night mambo. How pushed and pulled we are, at any moment between forces of selfishness — or is it just self-protection? — and unpredictable waves of generosity.

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• Writing While in No Mood to Write

The following two pieces are intended as companions to my guest blog post at Chris Brecheen’s Writing about Writing.

Thermonuclear Writing

blogcatI set out today to write a humorous blog about the phrase “a real writer” and how much it makes me itch, how counterproductive the concept is, how humans are born to be writers, or storytellers, at least. Then I decided that I was in too much of a troubled mood to write.

I was going to write that my family–my “thermonuclear” family of half brothers and stepsisters and second-cousins-in-law–is full of writers: corporate writers, songwriters, poets, technical writers, independent school magazine writers, newspaper men and women, book authors, cartoonists, and asskicking bloggers (my cousin Elizabeth, for instance).

Even my stepsister’s cat blogs on Daily Kos. In my family, being a writer is an opt-out proposition.

When my husband, a software engineer, decided take on a bookwriting project, I thought he had caught the family disease. Then I realized that, after all, I had done as my mother did (twice) and married someone who was a writer in the first place.

And even some of those who are not officially writers still wind up writing, and beautifully. Almost every day on the facebooks, my sister-in-law, a reading teacher, posts some gem about my beautiful, witty, resilient niece (who has autism) and my 8-year-old nephew, an old soul, who is as fun-loving as he is kind.

Then there’s my sister-in-law’s husband, my dirty rotten younger brother. The tortoise to my hare, he spent his teen years recreationally underachieving and in the middle of college suddenly decided to step on the gas.

He took all the writing courses that I had taken and then some, got better grades than I did, composed (among other things) a heartbreakingly beautiful sestina, and then threw it all over for math. His other character flaws include 20-20 vision, at least until recently, as well as perfect pitch.

OK, there, now, I’ve done it. I’ve tricked myself into typing out almost everything I wanted to say. Except for screw it about who is and isn’t a real writer. It’s not like you get a t-shirt with a big W on it to wear in heaven (although someone did once print up Writer t-shirts in my family).

qwerty If you have the least inclination to do so, call yourself a writer. It’s good for you to think that way. And don’t you dare try to yank that title from anyone else. It’s not nice, and more importantly it won’t help you with the main thing.

The main thing, of course, is getting the words on the paper in such a way that someone might want to read them. I’m not the first to say so, but the point of wanting to be a Writer is that it motivates you to figure out how to write.

***

On Resisting the Lists that Matter

1. Two hills that circle like hips around a valley lush with trees.

2. Two little girls in lavender terry cloth dresses. One is drinking a slushy or smoothy of some sort that is the exact same color as the dresses. The other one has a fluorescent green beverage, which matches the color of her socks.

While I was mulling over the rash that I get from the phrase “a real writer,” I was searching the web for examples of other expressions that irritate me. And I found one. It was a department headline on a regional blog aggregator: “Lists that Matter”! Like the “real writer” moniker, this heading strikes me as unnecessarily self-inflating. We have all noticed that lists on the internet are more common than ants at a picnic. Like ants, internet lists are a force of nature. Twenty Celebrities Who Peed their Pants in Kindergarten. For reasons unknown, people click on that sort of thing. Like those hardworking little insects, lists are useful. They organize bits of stuff; they get things done. When there are too many of them, it gets annoying. But nobody at the picnic says, “What we need here are some More Important Ants.”

I have to admit, though, that if I break out in hives over other writers’ promotional strategies, it’s because of my own insecurities, my desire to gain attention and recognition through my writing without having to strike a market-oriented, go-getting stance. Thus, in a snit of literary pretension, I wrote the tiny list above, whose appeal is purely sensual. Is it a List that Matters? You be the judge.

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• Are You Jewish?

Are you Jewish? It’s such a difficult question for me.

questionmarkThe easy answer is no.

And for many purposes the answer is correct. Most people who ask are Jewish themselves, and what they really want to know is, Will you celebrate the High Holidays? Do you live the way we do? Or, perhaps, Are your choices helping to preserve a Jewish legacy?

In these cases, I must assess whether any part of my Jewish heritage would be meaningful to the people questioning me. I usually decide that my having grown up with a nonobservant Jewish father in Squirrel Hill, a supremely Jewish neighborhood–where many non-Jews have greater knowledge of Judaism than I do–is not worth mentioning in these cases. In fact, I even blank out on some aspects of Jewish traditions, and have made at least one inappropriate phone call on Yom Kippur because I didn’t put it on my calendar and couldn’t hold the date in my head.

When someone expresses antisemitism, however, I’m down with the Tribe. One surreal evening, on a low-budget trip where I was staying in a noisy hostel, a jam-packed crash pad for club hoppers in Miami Beach, I met Victor, a young man from Mexico, friendly enough and mostly harmless. He gave me a piece of cross-cultural information I truly needed later when I moved to South Florida: down here, you aren’t really dancing unless you move your hips.

Just for company, I went on a bus ride with him down to Bayfront Park. We went for a short stroll, then came back to the bus stop. On the bench there, a young woman dressed in spandex, so heavily made up with dark lipstick and bright eye shadow that she could have been the personification of the city of Miami, was admiring her own long pink nails. “People say they aren’t mine,” she told us. “Of course they’re mine. I bought them.”

On the bus ride back, Victor started in telling me–entirely casually, as part of a description of his life in Mexico–that he didn’t like Jews, as though disliking Jewish people was a hobby or popular pastime. So of course I said, “I’m Jewish.” He responded with protestations of disbelief, which weren’t nearly as charming as he thought. It didn’t seem to occur to him that if I didn’t fit his idea of a Jew, he might want to question his own views.

sedereggAre you Jewish? In less extreme cases, where people are merely curious about my background or beliefs, I respond with humor and deflection. Sometimes I say “That’s a good question,” and leave it at that. If pressed, I tell my mother’s story (previously alluded to in this weblog) of my four-year-old self getting a magic marker and drawing a line down my middle, then asking “Hey, Mom, which halfa me is Jewish?”

In truth, my fragmentary Jewish heritage has always been a tender subject over which I am prone to shock and turmoil. My first Passover seder, for instance, around age 7, was one at a friend’s house, and for reasons I’ll never know, my father and I arrived after the start. Despite the awkwardness of this, our hosts were kind, seating me at the children’s table and doing their best to catch me up, briefly, with what was going on. I grasped, at least, that this was a special meal and that this was why we were eating servings bits of food, an egg, some parsley, crackers called matzah, instead of filling our plates.

I was hungry and knew only one or two of the kids at the table but did my best to stick with the program. The next thing I remember was biting into a solid chunk of horseradish, the “bitter herb” that recalls bitterness of slavery. Even if “bitter” had been part of my vocabulary, the word would not have prepared me for what I experienced. My eyes started watering before I knew what had happened. It felt like someone had jammed a sharpened stick into my tongue and kicked me in the head to boot. It hurt as much as anything I had experienced up to that point.

In retrospect, I tell myself that I got the full effect: a moment of uncomprehending pain offered a minuscule taste of unfathomable misery. Worse than the pain was the feeling of isolation. I didn’t understand the occasion well enough to communicate with anyone about what was happening with me. I have never overcome my childhood confusions over religions, not just the baffling expectations of Judaism but also the reasons that some of my Christian classmate gave me about why I was going to go to hell. I give you my word as a lapsed Unitarian that you will not find me cleaving to organized faiths of any kind. Yet I must acknowledge how deeply the Western religions have influenced me.

Absolutely, I believe in God, with no apologies for the dubious roots of my beliefs–a children’s Bible, an intently Catholic babysitter, a smattering of televangelist broadcasts that used to come on before morning cartoons. I had an LP of adapted Old Testament stories that I played over and over, alternately with the soundtrack from The Aristocats.

I identified with Noah for his headstrong nonconformity. Once, during a battle with neighborhood kids, I imagined I was Sampson, jumping up on a bench wielding, ironically, a dried-up pork chop as if it were the jawbone of an ass. In my fantasy life, I was also young Jesus discoursing with the old men in the temple. In my head I debated theological points with the Reverend Rex Humbard, who led broadcasts from the Cathedral of Tomorrow (and later officiated at Elvis’s funeral).

Some of my friends have attested that an emphasis on belief strikes them as culturally Christian, whereas Judaism centers on acts of worship. I am told that that many congregations would recognize me as Jewish if I simply embraced the identity. This makes sense: with all the trials that Jewish people have suffered, and with the world population of Jews on the decline, there is a need for an affirming and active approach.

On the other hand, another friend once told me that even converts or children whose mothers are converts do not count as “real” Jews, and that intermarriage was not just a threat but an affront to the Jewish people. Still, he was mystified and hurt when I quietly desisted from the friendship. I couldn’t verbalize my impressions that (a) his racialist views might actually be destructive toward Judaism and (b) he had objected to very my existence.

On the third hand, my second seder, at the home of my long-time friend Daniel, was a healing and clarifying experience. Partly, that was because I was much older, with duller taste buds and stronger powers of inference. Mostly it was because of actions of Dan and his family, especially his parents, Roz and Al.

Some people of some religions have a habit of explaining things to you in sentences so formal that you know you’re an outsider. You also know that the difference matters to the explainer. I suppose that this is often a form of self-protection, guarding against an outsider’s possible lack of respect. In any case, it is a way of being that Roz and Al abjured.

Additionally, on two occasions, they invited both me and my dad for Thanksgiving, seating us at the end their large dining room table, across from a print (of a painting by Tully Filmus) that they have of a scholar in a prayer shawl. I’ve always liked that painting, filled in lightly with vigorous strokes of blue and black, and the way the scholar leans over his text, patient and tranquil.

While writing this article, I had to check in with Dan, because I had the vague impression that my dad was there for one of their seders. (It seems not.) If I conflated the two occasions, it was not because the holidays are in any way interchangeable, but because the quality of hospitality at their home was always the same.

Dan’s family chatted us up in a way that affirmed the intimate relationship that all of us shared with Squirrel Hill and its history. They joked with each other and even bickered a bit about whose job it was to get the nice china out on the table. In no way did they inquire into who or what we were or were not. We were guests in their home and that was sufficient answer for everything.

In truth, though, my Jewish identity does not hinge on whether or not Jewish groups or settings are welcoming to me, swayed as I am by other elements in my background. I have a family heritage of agnosticism, or at least of religious non-affiliation, that matters to me as much as any affiliation could. In an expansive mood like the one I’m in now, I’ll tell you I’m on a mission from God to refuse labels and to withhold straight answers.

And still, though I know I am in profound contradiction with the central Jewish traditions of shared observance, I still feel like a Jew–albeit a bad Jew, and arguably a useless one, recalcitrantly wayward and willfully. Even Jesus had a beef with the lukewarm adherent, and yet the question “Are you a Jew?” is different from the one I ask myself.

When I ask, “Am I a Jew?” the answer is yes, waveringly, defiantly, guiltily, and eternally yes.

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